This excerpt from “Telling Raven Stories,” one of several essays in Sherry Simpson’s book The Way Winter Comes (1998, Sasquatch Books), is typical of the author’s curiosity about her subject. Simpson, who taught creative writing to a generation of Alaskan writers (including the editor of this magazine), and who published other books and a multitude of essays throughout her career, passed away suddenly in 2020. We think sharing a sample of her work is a perfect way to honor her. Excerpt published with permission.
Ravens are adept at messing with people’s stuff and with their minds. Any visitation of ravens is vaguely alarming, so it’s not surprising that the Juneau newspaper reported an unusual swarm at the turn of the century. A flock of several hundred ravens winged over town one summer day and descended upon buildings, trees, and fences. A second flock followed, and then a third, so many that the birds repeatedly dropped out of bent trees in clusters and fluttered up again, searching for a perch, “until every available space became a rustling, moving [creaking] mass of black.” After a short rest, they took flight again, a black cloud vanishing in the distance.
In the winter of 1929, when other food was scarce, ravens began killing sheep in the Aleutians. The Aleutian Island Livestock Company marked its sheep with a daub of red paint that apparently attracted ravens. Landing on the backs of the unfortunate sheep, the ravens would shift from pecking at the red spot to pecking out the eyes, until the weakened animals fell. Switching to black paint seemed to help a little.
Modern shenanigans are less predatory but often more puzzling. Ravens in one Alaska town became obsessed with stripping the rubber off windshield wipers. No one knows why. When ravens began inexplicably poking holes in the covering on a giant satellite dish at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, technicians tried jiggling the dish mechanically to shake them off. When that failed, they sent out a “ravenator” armed with a firecracker gun to scare them away. A friend describes watching a raven perched on the edge of a radar dish shout various calls into the parabola and then listen appreciatively to its own echo. A raven living in a cage at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage pushed food through the bars to wild ravens that gathered nearby. Again, the common refrain: No one knows why.
One reason people favor ravens is because of their unusually large vocabulary. Ravens are the largest of the passerines, or perching songbirds, but their eloquence usually emerges in syllables, not notes. A Fairbanks researcher identified more than thirty distinct calls he described with such words as kukwik, kikkoo, kulkulk, kowulkulkulk, and so on. Others have devised their own syllabaries to describe raven calls: cawlup, kow, ku-uk-kuk, kra, and so on—but even renowned raven researcher Bernd Heinrich admits being unable to match these various dialects to each other. He sticks with “quork,” “yell,” “trill,” and “knocking” to describe important behavior.
I grew up with raven voices in my head, but I always thought of these calls as “the sound like water dropping” or “the sound like I’m being laughed at.” To my inexpert ears, the calls I hear ravens make in Fairbanks seem different from the sounds ravens make in Southeast Alaska. No matter. What unnerves me in a raven is not fluency but silence, the silence of a bird that has fixed you with a knowing gaze and is thinking things it chooses not to say.
And so we tell our raven stories. Last winter I tried to be more watchful, like a raven. I saw a score of the birds plunging into updrafts roiling off the edge of a building and then tumbling out again, over and over. What else would you call this foolishness but play? I listened carefully to the sonorous kawws echoing through the birch forest (or were they kowahs?). When courting season arrived in February, the birds abandoned purposeful flight for barrel rolls, aerial filigrees, and high-speed chases, and I laughed to see it all. Last fall, a white raven showed up in town (even the ladies in the salon where I get haircuts were talking about it), and now I’m driving around like Rod King [a local biologist] with my head craned up near the windshield, hoping to see such a remarkable thing. Nature does not exist to teach us lessons; nevertheless, by watching ravens I’ve learned something about how to survive winter with spirit intact.
There are worse things than to be fixed in the eye of a raven. Late one afternoon, as I walked with my dogs along a snowy trail, a raven swept overhead bound for its roost. The swoosh of wings eddied in the still air as the bird looped around for a closer look. The failing light of the sun gilded its breast. Twice more the raven circled us and then flew on, darkness falling from its wings.
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