Ravens revisited

 

Here’s a rewrite of the raven piece, as presented in the class I’m taking.

Of ravens and birthdays

About a month after my 29th birthday one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. He was also 29.

That March morning we shared a cup of tea, enjoying the warm morning sun, rare in Alaska. He irritated me by throwing his tea bag down on the grassy lawn, looking at me expectantly. He always loved a good scolding. I made him pick it up. Ready for adventure, he pointed at Mount Jumbo, wanting to climb that day. I was too busy, but made him promise to stop climbing when he got to the snow; not having the right gear for the slippery stuff. But he was the one who careened down steep Juneau streets barefoot on his bike; danced barefoot in crowded bars, ran around barefoot-crazy-Australian in the snow. Ignored the square dance caller, making up outrageous moves of his own.

We hugged goodbye after drinking our tea, and that was that. I never saw him again. Stunningly beautiful day, he couldn’t resist the pull of the summit. Up is easy. Down can be deadly.

I fell too in a way, introduced to tragedy, crushed to the ground by sudden unfathomable loss. During the search for him, which took 2 days, there were a hundred of us out there, calling his name, literally looking high and low. And there were ravens. In Southeast Alaska native culture Raven is creator, bringer of life and light, lusty, trickster. In my personal culture they are friends.

The searchers up high saw ravens, felt drawn by the ravens. The most brilliant of birds, they guide hunters to game, signaling by “dumping their pack”, an aerobatic feat, a flip upside down in flight. It grabs your attention. You have to follow. When the body was found, there were ravens all around, but Tony was not disturbed. Ravens assemble and grieve for their fallen. I like to think that they gathered around him to lament his loss and ease his passage.

Ravens are a presence. They have flown so close by my head that the air, pushed by a wing, slapped my ear. They’ve razzle-dazzled my dog, flying within inches of his head to make him jump. They shove French fries under roof shingles. Their mating dance is a fluffed up strut fest. Raven voices are mystery, vast in range. Raven language a miracle, vast in variation. They hop sideways, and look at us with head cocked. If only we were smart enough to understand. Once a raven did a crazy trapeze act for me, hanging upside down from a branch with a large stick clamped in its beak; it squawk-laugh-shouted then let go, plummeting toward the ground, dropping the stick and flying away a bare instant before biting the dust.

When I was 29, my beautiful, free spirited, infinitely silly friend turned into a raven and flew away. For days, weeks, months after, I felt like the ravens were following me. It was probably magical thinking. They are everywhere in Alaska. But they were a comfort, making me feel less alone. In some mythologies ravens help the soul return to support mourners or right wrongs that were done during life. I would ask them, “Do you know Tony? Are you Tony?”.

My dear friend’s flight put my feet on the ground. His death made life more precious, made me love my people better. Raven, like Tony, doesn’t take himself too seriously; reminds me to keep it crazy. Now, living where ravens are scarce, I have to draw on the divinity of Raven more than the actuality. In this concrete-bound world, where people are more likely to die from weapon fire or car crashes, than flying from a mountain top, the madness of ravens, and the clean realities of wild places seem even more precious. Raven is free and unpredictable and outrageous, a guide through the changes, mistakes, regrets and love that we survive along the way. On a beautiful day just after my 29th birthday, one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. I fell too in that year, on that day. But I lived, transformed, and became more, by the grace of love and with the help of ravens.

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