Category Archives: Ravens

Salty Dog

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Snow covers the parked cars on Gastineau Street. Some are so hemmed in by snow berms that they won’t be freed without some shovel work. I have a lot of time to study the snowed-in cars as Aki inspects every yellow spot in the snow.

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We are between snowstorms. Yesterday’s left the cottonwoods and alders branches with white highlights. Already the temperature is well above freezing and the snow on trees will soon soften and fall to ground.

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Aki throws on the brakes after we drop down to South Franklin Street. In an effort to keep the sidewalks free of ice and snow, the merchants have spread rock salt on them. At first my little dog ignores the crystals but then stops. She gives me that “what have you gotten me into” look. I end up carrying her in my arms through the salted zone. Unfortunately, it is lunch hour for the downtown office workers, several of whom make teasing comments about my unique style of dog walking.

 

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Dropping A Dime

 

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At first Aki didn’t seem bothered by our late start. Much snow from a new storm had to be cleared before we could leave the yard. She announced her presence on the street with the usual bark and then got down to checking the pee mail. Since the roads were still a mess, I decided to take Aki on the usual tour of downtown Juneau. But rather than climbing the gentle Gastineau Avenue grade, which would have meant a visit with the resident ravens perched above the channel, she insisted that we swing over the Lower Franklin Street.

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We passed small knots of homeless folks sheltering from the tail end of the storm and later the Glory Hole homeless shelter. Two right turns and one left, all at her direction, brought us to a snowed-in Marine Park. Three ravens bickered in the bare branches of shade trees. A single pigeon perched on a rail and looked out at the channel. Perhaps the ravens were trying to decide which one could grab the city bird.

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Aki had no interest in any of the birds. She led me up Seward Street and then stopped in front of the state’s social worker office. When I urged her to continue on toward home she gave me a hard look and pointed her noise at the door. They only protect abused children, not disappointed canines, little dog. After a little more urging, Aki trotted on up the hill after her unsuccessful attempt to drop a dime on her humans.

Shelter From the Storm

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Two days ago, a strip of ice made it possible for Aki and I to safely reach the face of Mendenhall Glacier. It formed a bridged for us over a mire of overflow. The next morning, our local radio station broadcasted a warning against crossing the lake to the glacier in the present conditions. This morning, the little dog and I walk down another ribbon of ice. This one wanders through an old growth forest to the beach. It’d be dangerous for anyone not using ice cleats.

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Perhaps because of the icy trail, we are alone in the woods. There’s a small-scale blizzard blowing outside but no wind and little snow make it through the forest canopy. No wonder deer shelter from storms among the big trees. It’s cozy-quiet—a good place for a deer to graze and rest.

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The beach, when we reach it, would be quiet if not for a family of ravens bickering above us in a spruce tree. Just offshore a raft of surf scoters practice their drill team maneuvers—expanding from a compact raft to form the letter “C.” A small group leaves formation to huddle over a ball of baitfish. Several of the birds sound their “three stooges” goofy call. Soon, all of the scoters are going after the fish.

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Sloppy Walk

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Aki and I are walking in slop. Last night’s wet snow was supercharged with water by the rain that followed. Now my boots plop into shallow lakes that have formed on Juneau’s sidewalks and streets. Aki manages to skirt most of the wet areas as she searches the melting snow for hidden scents.

The Gastineau Avenue ravens seem grouchy, croaking at us from the top branches of the avenue’s cottonwood trees. When the sun breaks through the marine layer, it sparkles off the new snow covering Mt. Jumbo across the channel. If my feet were dry and Aki wasn’t tugging on her lead, I’d stop and enjoy the scene.

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Unkindness of Ravens

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Aki growls her way down our home street. I look around and can find no dog close enough to hear her trash talk. Then a furry black blur tears past us, gives Aki a ferocious snarl and ducks down a set of stairs. My little dog continues on, pulling like a sled dog down the street. I have to do a shuffle-slide to keep from falling. I wonder if the snow is energizing her.

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Quarter-sizes flakes drift down on us, melting on Aki’s back as soon as they touch it. It accumulates on the leafless limbs of alders and cottonwoods, making each tree look like an Escher print. We power up Gastineau Avenue, passing the owners of a jeep being helped by two garbage truck guys to free it from a snow bank.

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Further along the avenue an unkindness of ravens forms around an abandoned package of meat. One sits nearby on a sidewalk railing, plucking snowflakes out of the air with its beak. Over on Sixth Street the faces on a totem pole have new, white beards.

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Raven

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Raven struts down Sandy Beach, mimicking a prosperous and pompous dean of industry. Just beyond him, a small raft of mallards fish the waters around a collection of archaic pilings. Neither raven nor the ducks appear to notice the soft drizzle that settles on their feathers. When Aki follows me onto the beach, raven flies to a six-foot high piling.

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As if serving as a model for a life drawing class, raven strikes a 20 second long pose—chest puffed out, beak raised, eye pointed at me as if in a challenge. A series of other short poses follows. I stand without charcoal or paper, unable to capture the hardness of his beak and eyes, the softly curving line of his chest, the confusion of blue and purple feathers that look black from a distance.

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Necessary Work

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The cottonwood trees bordering Gastineau Avenue are filling with ravens. Somewhere nearby a bald eagle screams out its territorial warning. Down the hill, fifteen mature bald eagles have settled in trees above Lower Franklin Street. They lurk beneath the tram that in summer carries cruise ship tourists up Mt. Roberts. I look down at Taku Smokeries to see if they are processing black cod. But no tender boats line the dock to off load their catch. The last time so many ravens and eagles assembled above South Franklin when the Taku plant was closed, they had been drawn by the body of a deceased homeless man that the police reported, “had been left unattended for an extended time in the woods.” I pray for different explanation for the scavenger’s gathering and try to remember the words of a poem I wrote in response to the homeless man’s death.

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Necessary Work

Stiff as corpses, large birds hover over fresh kills,

gliding in circles that draw a crowd of kind.

Locals call them turkeys to fool the tourists

who want to believe that the sun always warms

 

evergreen grass along the California coast,

that death is exiled to just north, south, east, west

of this place so close to heaven

that the undertaker is bored.

 

Home in Alaska, hunting reduces the need for trope,

and most families eat around bullet holes in their meat.

Eagles, ravens and crows tidy the dead. Without judgment,

I’ve watched them do this necessary work in the heavy rain.

 

Last winter, eagles hovered over Gastineau Avenue, screamed

at each other and the stubborn ravens. I took their pictures

then dropped down rickety steps to a Franklin Street coffee stand.

I bragged about seeing the eagle glut until the police

 

reported the Gastineau Avenue discovery

of the corpse of a homeless man, once a villager

now a mystery to his family, with no friends,

found in the area where I saw the cloud of eagles.

 

He lived unattended in the woods, died alone,

was waked by carrion eaters too innocent

to mourn. I’ll try to remember him as someone’s son,

not a once fleshy body now carrion reduced to bones.

(“Necessary Work” by Dan Branch, The Penwood Review, volume 21, number 2, fall 2017)

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