Raven Diary: Thought and Memory

A raven studies some object of interest (click image).

When I was small, I was frightened by a raven looking in my window. He peered straight at me, which was strange enough, but then turned his head so I saw him in profile. Though this may seem benign, it unsettled me because the one eye I observed seemed to be working me even more directly; I could almost see the wheels turning as he processed his thoughts about this creature he studied. To be the object of such a discerning eye didn’t sit well with me at all, despite – or perhaps because of – his creator status, and for some years I avoided the birds even though within me I carried some other emotion regarding them, though I could never define it. It was as if he could read everything within me, thoughts and all, and I did not wish to be so exposed. Yet that probing seemed to come from some connection we had, something I knew to have occurred between us but could not place in my memory recall.

As the years went by, if I thought of it at all, I chalked my avoidance up to my lack of fan feeling for birds in general. My Auntie Astrid had taught me to whistle to birds and I delighted when they chattered back to me; I still do. Moreover, I flush in pleasure when they respond because my whistling isn’t all that accomplished or beautiful. There also are loads of quite pretty birds and the sight of them soaring in the sky really is very lovely. And I even marvel at some of the more peculiar beaks, especially the long, thin ones, which seem so exotic. But up close? I tended toward the perception of them as dirty, creatures who would projectile shit on a human just as soon as take food from them. I didn’t like the smell and was annoyed at the way the pet varieties tossed things from their cages. I vowed never to have one.

Maggie Mae (Queen of All Under the Sun), sunning herself on our front steps. To hear the song that gave this gorgeous creature her name, click image. ©2019 Lisl Zlitni

At one point I went through a period in which I wondered whatever happened to the person I used to be, the kid who had two cats (Snowball and Peanut), a dog (Lady) and a rabbit (Maggie Mae) – amongst other critters at various times. I knew becoming an adult and taking on more serious responsibilities played into that and that I just didn’t have time for pets. But one week in college I babysat a friend’s house while she and her husband were away and found myself put off by her dog’s oily coat, the lather of which rubbed off onto my hands, making me not want to touch him. That bothered me because despite my intense fear of dogs when I was super little (I had been a very small child and they were just so huge), I’d grown to love them, and cuddling dogs, especially the absolutely wonderful love muffin of a mutt I had in high school, was one of my favorite things to do.

So where was the animal-loving me? I disliked birds, didn’t want to touch dogs anymore, what was next? Somewhere in the midst of all this, I learned that the pre-teen daughter of a friend had thrown their bird across the room in a rage, slamming it against the wall. I remember being horrified and disgusted: what a terrible act, and against something so small and dependent upon others to keep it safe. In this I got my answer about myself, though would have preferred not to learn it this way. Life, however, did not allow me to dwell upon it, and forced me to move forward.

Mit Turtle u. Ziege ©2019 Lisl Zlitni

As it did, I managed to recognized indicators that perhaps I hadn’t grown as hard-hearted as I’d feared. I was thrilled to see a falcon with his man at the park strip downtown, even more so when my small son wanted to watch and listen as the man told us about his craft and wonderful companion. Later, it was a dream to keep goats and chickens, both of which I could somehow relate to people being in love with. Goats were just so adorable and chickens, though perhaps not quite so, I found so often to have such funny little personalities.

In recent years, ravens once more captured my attention, moving in and out of my consciousness/awareness quite a lot: congregating in parking lots and on street lamps, in books, movies, seeing references to them online and so on. But the biggest influence has been the weird way one used to come to my window and stare at me as I sat at my desk (flush up against a corner, with one window to the left, another to the right and sort of in back of me, a deck outside each window). Once that happened the first couple of times, I knew when it would again occur (if I was at my desk) because I first would hear them hanging around outside, moving about on the roof drainage duct or kaw kawing outside near my little corner. It was slightly creepy but didn’t put me off as it had before. In fact, it was rather fascinating, though I didn’t really do anything about it except to ask one of them several times (was it always the same one?), “What is it you are trying to tell me?” Once I prodded him, “Who are you?” He seemed to sigh a very deep sigh, as if the question exasperated him.

I say “used to come to my window” because it’s been some time now, at least a couple of months – I think. I’m not consistently working at home, plus I didn’t really pay much attention after a few words to them here and there, so I can’t pinpoint any dates or even what season it was, to be honest.

This changed last week when I found myself looking up more information about ravens and becoming somewhat hooked. What might be most fascinating about this to me is that even though it’s only been a few days—it was Tuesday evening and at this writing it’s Saturday—I couldn’t tell you what brought that about. All I know is that one moment I was minding my own business and the next scouring the internet. Although, I do recall the weekend before this one sitting out on my deck reading, frequently interrupted by ravens flying behind me making the same sounds as in the video below. They swooped as they talked to each other, and whenever I turned around, they and their chatter vanished. I’d briefly wondered if they were teasing me, having recognized me as the person they usually see inside, and now I was out there with them. I dismissed it then, only later learning they really do tease, at least each other.

Raven Creates Man, Juneau City Hall mural by Bill C. Ray (click image for full view and alternative perspectives). ©2019 Lisl Zlitni

In any case, I grew interested in the practice of leaving food for them (I was slightly horrified to learn that many ravens have an affinity for cheese puffs) and, on the advice of some more reputable websites, set out different items for them, attempting to bear in mind an oft-repeated piece of advice I also read or heard from these corvid lovers: Be patient.

I’m trying, man, I’m trying. Periodically I wonder if I’ve ever done anything mean to a raven, though I know it would have to be an offense such as closing the Venetians on one of them, or an act along those lines, because even if I was meh about these critters, I would never do anything to harm any animal. Still, I find myself wondering, “What did I ever do to you guys?” Because now that I’m trying to get their attention, they don’t seem to be having any of it. That may sound silly, but these guys hold grudges and they tell their friends about meanies in the neighborhood. Could I be known to the silky black songbirds as the crabby lady on the block? Duuuude. I was just trying to get some work done! I have to eat too, you know.

OK, so. Here’s what I’ve offered so far.

Tuesday: Laid out some strawberries on a paper plate. No takers that night or next.

Wednesday: Tried a few grapes this time. Nothing.

Thursday: Prepared chicken for dinner and set out a few raw pieces. Also, on paper plate, spaced apart, having read from Bernard Heinreich’s chapter on raven anxieties and piles of even much-loved treats seeming to appear fearsome to the birds. Response: Who cares? That is, it ended up flipped onto the deck, also untouched.

Friday: In all this time of whistling and watching, I’ve seen lots of gulls and magpies, but only one or two ravens, who did not come close. They were quite far and may not even have been ravens, because I didn’t hear their familiar kaw kaw sound.

In the morning on this day I put out a hard-boiled egg, sliced on a paper plate. A magpie came and ate, undisturbed by me standing not far from the window, watching.

Drove son to friend’s house and on the way back saw a raven sitting atop the Holiday sign (36thand C). As the light was red, I had the chance to see him try to move from the very top to a ledge not much down, which doesn’t seem to come out so far and it appeared he tripped, or misjudged the width, because it looked like he had to right himself and re-grip. He looked around as well, like a person would in embarrassment, but I’m sure he had some animal-kingdom reason for doing so. (Maybe drunk on berries?) I know, I know. I can already hear the lecture about anthropomorphism. But hey, there is some contemplation these guys possess theory of mind, so go easy on me, ok?

Drove around to parking lots, garbage bins, restaurants, seeking ravens looking for food or begging for a handout. Was totally prepared to furnish one. Raven atop Holiday sign was gone, none around town that I saw, despite the reality that when I’m not looking for them, they’re flipping everywhere. In hoardes. Later, asked son for suggestions and he replied, “Not gonna lie: our neighborhood.” Like it was shameful or something. Pft!

Saturday: In the early morning put out hard-boiled egg, this time not peeled. Ended up on deck. Peeled and cut it. Magpie came back to eat. Lazy bastard! Curiously, this time he left the white. About 19:30 was sitting in living room and heard kaw kawwent outside. Saw ravens above, but then the pair flew in southerly direction and could no longer see as neighbor’s house was in the way. However, did hear them for a few moments more.

800px-3782_Common_Raven_in_flight

Now I have a new set of contemplations: While the ravens have been on my mind since some time, I suddenly decided to start learning more about them. Why? Will this interest persist? Will I learn to watch and listen for the right clues? Ask informed questions? Will I be doing this in a year? In a week? What will I take away from this experience, if anything? And I certainly do hope there is something. I consider Thought and Memory for a moment, how their reports to Odin each evening shaped the world. As I look out into the world with my own eyes, reconsidering my own thoughts and memories, I wonder about my old fears and awestruck observations, their role in shaping me, but even more where we’re headed to now.

The video maker refers to these corvids as crows, but commenters confirm they are ravens. These songbirds are adept at imitating human speech, the sound of a flushing toilet, computer pings and a host of other audio samples.

Photos not otherwise marked are courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Click each image for more info. 

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