Raven thoughts

I don’t remember when the way I think about ravens changed. What I remember is a hike I took in Chaco Canyon, over sun-bleached stones, past fossilized shrimp and ancient puebloan ruins, until we found ourself hiking along the edge of a horseshoe-shaped mesa, tracing the edge of a huge open-air amphitheater.

A raven flew past through the deep blue sky to land right in the middle of the horseshoe.

He krawked. Waited. His voice echoed back at him. Krawked again. Waited again. Another echo. He knew what he was doing, and what he was doing was playing, with what seemed to be full awareness of the fact. Casting his voice out and waiting for it to come back, in this place where he knew from experience how to find the best perch to make echoes travel.

A day or two earlier, after a couple days filled with tocking and krawking ravens at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, lnhammer and I had begun tossing ideas around in the car, as writer couples do, and the idea of a Raven’s Butte National Monument, where shapeshifting ravens live, got tossed around for the first time.

I’d already read about ravens before then, partly because I knew there’d be a raven in Thief Eyes, partly out of general interest. After that New Mexico camping trip, I kept learning, watching videos of canny ravens stealing prey from eagles and humans, of playful ravens rolling downhill through the snow. I watched my own surroundings more carefully, too, and it became clear my city and my neighborhood held more ravens than I’d realized, ravens sharing opinions with a throaty krawk (though that isn’t their only sound) that sometimes made me think maybe they’d been drinking whisky and hanging out in smokey bars.

After a while, that krawk began to sound like laughter, not just at us silly humans, but at all the silly world, as seen by a species of bird smart enough to have a true sense of humor. When I see a raven, I get the feeling that they see me too, that almost, if we both wanted it badly enough, we could communicate, because we both have not only the intelligence for it, but also the curiosity.

I forgot that in many mythologies and many popular cultures, ravens seem rather dark and mysterious: dark-winged harbingers of death, seeking to peck out the eyes of the dead. (Though they will indeed peck out the eyes of the dead. They don’t have a raptor’s strength in their claws, and eyes are soft and easy to get to.) Yet in much of Native American mythology ravens are … still dangerous, but dangerous tricksters, tricking and being tricked in turn. (Though Raven is not the trickster of the Southwest, interestingly enough for a place so raven-filled. It’s Coyote who more often walks this land.) And in the natural world, ravens really do often seem to me to be smart feathered goofballs, and I mean that in the most affectionate way.

So when I wrote my shapeshifting ravens, I left the mystery out, because they weren’t mysterious to me anymore. Or rather they very much were–there’s still more I don’t know about ravens than that I do, I’m pretty sure–but they were also familiar, companions on daily walks and runs, known shapes in the desert sky.

One thing I think I’ll be doing, as I begin my editorial rewrite, is to work to bring the mystery back–while keeping the humor and the trickiness, too.

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