Into the Wild

On a Ramble, Raven-watching in the New Year


Let’s take a ramble. Let’s head through this soggy pasture and aim for the woods.

Think of all we’ve seen in the last year on the KP, the encounters with deer and moths, the record heat, the mysterious beaver scat, the roving bands of berry-hunting birds. Pay attention to the natural world and you’ll never be bored or alone. What will this new year bring?

What will this ramble bring? In a low spot I see that moles have been in an ecstasy of mound-building. Walking through them reminds me of skiing moguls. Then, atop one mound is something orange. Scat. What? Am I becoming the scat man? Orange scat? It has to be coyote scat, by the looks of it, and I can only imagine what the coyote was up to when it chose to squat here, what message it wanted to send. To the moles or to me?

I like the word ramble for these explorations. I slip through an old fence and enter the woods. To call them hikes would be to confine them to pathways with starts and ends. It would focus the attention on me. A ramble isn’t exactly aimless but it’s freeform and fluid and never complete. It circles and stoops. It can have more stillness than movement.

My goal this year is to keep on rambling. There has been a windstorm and the ground is littered with branches the atmosphere chose to prune. Lichens and mosses that once lived high above are available for study. A raven calls beyond the deeper woods. And here is a 6-foot branch planted straight into the ground like a javelin. I pull it out — its tip is 10 inches deep — then put it back.

Questions surround me, tangled webs of them. Some can only be answered here. From which tree did this javelin fall? How long will it remain upright in the ground? I scan the trees above. Instead of seeing a fresh scar where the branch was torn free, I see hundreds, thousands of javelins sprouting from trunks at odd angles.

Other questions can be approached by looking elsewhere. The raven is calling again, a resonant quork that rattles the forest. For a full minute I wait. Suddenly the raven chases through the octopus-shaped patch of sky above. It vanishes. These ravens! I’d give anything to know what they’re up to when I see them. They’re always up to something.

For nine years I’ve been paying attention to a pair of ravens that live nearby. I still can’t find their nest. At the beginning of that time ravens were a rarity around here. But in the last few years, particularly around Key Center, they have become almost commonplace. A few months ago, I saw a loose line of them go past and counted 10 in all. Why here? Why now?

I go to the literature. I read the reports of a brotherhood of raven-watchers who have spent years of their lives trekking through the woods and recording every glimpsed detail of ravens’ lives in Minnesota, Maine, Germany, Alaska. But ravens like remote places. They are generalists best suited to landscapes with a wide range of food options, meaning steep terrain. And they are crafty. In legends from here to the Russian Far East, they create the world by playing tricks, bringing light and losing it again, duping those around them. Biologists have a heck of a time keeping up.

Painstakingly our understanding of raven society grows. One biologist spent years on their vocalizations, emerging with a dictionary of calls and situations in which they are used. Other biologists have focused on the interactions between mated pairs, which mate for life and can live for decades, and bands of unmated juveniles. Pairs claim a territory and defend it, while juveniles roam far and wide. Pairs tend to hunt smaller prey and guard the berries and seeds that ripen in their domains, while bands of juveniles muscle resident pairs off large animal carcasses and human dumps, acting as scavengers. The raven brain has been compared to that of a 3-year-old human. They use tools and solve problems and learn not just from other ravens but from other species.

Watch a raven and you’ll know that our collective research has only scratched the surface of what they’re up to. You’ll see swagger, a loose handling of time, nonchalant freedom. I’ve seen them play chase and catch with scraps of paper. I’ve seen them do full barrel rolls. They are constantly poking, prodding, learning, adapting, the perfect reminder that life is situated in place. A raven here is not a raven anywhere; it is dependent on its surroundings.

That’s the ramble: trying to see the context as much as the thing itself.

Back in college I soaked up the words of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts: “All things are one thing, and one thing is all things … It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” In hindsight I see why it spoke to me so — to hear as a young person that everything matters, no matter how small, is a huge comfort.

Lately I’m not thinking quite so big. Thom van Dooren, who writes about extinction, says the idea that “everything is connected to everything will not help us here. Rather, everything is connected to something, which is connected to something else. While we may all ultimately be connected to one another, the specificity and proximity of connections matters … Life and death happen inside those relationships.”

Where you happen to be born, who your parents are, what friends you find — that’s the stuff of life and death. It’s easy for me to resolve to keep exploring this year, to say wow, look how cool ravens are. The more daring resolve I hope to carry is a deep acceptance that I’ll never get the bird’s-eye view. Life is a tangled web of specific relationships on the small peninsula we share. Why that particular mole hill, out of all of them, coyote? It’s okay if the question is never fully answered. Just by asking it, I join the web.

One of my son’s books, which tells of ravens picking on exhausted mountain climbers high on Denali, even jauntily landing atop Denali’s peak, ends with the line, “Above the wings of Raven, the only view is heaven.” Maybe that’s so. As far as I can tell, in this life we’ll never get that view. We’ll be rambling somewhere far below raven, our view half-blocked by trees that will scatter their limbs in every stiff breeze.