Category Archives: Ravens

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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Slavic Birds

1The Russian Orthodox Church is celebrating Christmas today. In the Yup’ik country of Western Alaska, believers called it Slavic. To celebrate Slavic in Russian Orthodox villages along the Kuskokwim River, everyone processes behind a Christmas star from home to home. They crowd into each house to sing and receive small presents like socks, gloves, or candy. In larger villages it might take several nights to complete the circuit. Peace comes easy during Slavic.

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Aki has never seen anyone celebrate Slavic but this afternoon we both watched an eagle and raven negotiate peace in the presence of a Christmas tree. The tree, lit by blue and gold lights, stood on a floating fish-cutting barge in the middle of Amalga Harbor. Fifty meters away a raven and bald eagle perched on a boat ramp railing. Even nearer was the tide soaked carcass of a deer. At least three more eagles and a half dozen ravens watch from nearby trees.

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All the evidence suggests that the carcass, not the decorated tree, drew these two competitors together. When we first arrived, a knot of ravens and eagles were bickering over the dead deer. All but one raven took to the air. The Christmas eagle moved over to the boat ramp railing, refusing to move even after the raven flew toward it. After the raven took up station a few feet away from the eagle, both birds held their ground. A few minutes later, the eagle and raven turned their backs on the carcass to gaze on the tree as if posing for a Christmas card.

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On the Margins

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Rain-slick ice covers the trail into the Treadwell Ruins. Thin strips of grass form margins on both side of the ice. Aki and I watch an older hiker maneuver down one of the grass verges, using a walking stick to keep from falling. The little dog and I follow, she sniffing, me dancing around islands of ice or dog poop. It’s the only way to add excitement to this gray, wet visit to the ruins.

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I manage to descend through Treadwell to the ice-free beach and spot a bald eagle perched on an old mine ventilation shaft. The eagle ignores us, which is not surprising as 100 meters of seawater separate us from the bird.

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After we move down beach a raven lands on a short piling 10 meters ahead. Turning its back on the little dog and I, it looks as relaxed as a drinker on his favorite bar stool. When we’ve halved the distance, close enough to make out the patterns of purple and black feathers on the bird’s back, an Australian shepherd dog dashes past us and chases the raven off its perch. The raven calmly lands on a 3-meter high piling. Another raven occupies the top of a similar piling a few meters away. The shepherd circles one of the occupied pilings. Neither raven move even when the shepherd dog rises up on its hind legs and reaches up the piling with its front paws. In seconds they could both be perched high in a beachside alder, away from the pesky dog. But that would end the excitement.

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Sheriff in Her Own Mind

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On this soft winter day, Aki lead me on one of her favorite walks. She trotted down Gold and up Gastineau Avenue, checking for sign and marking her territory. In her mind, she owns Downtown Juneau. No one but me showed her deference. The raven that is always perched on the same cottonwood branch when we walk by ignored my little dog. I exchanged hellos with three homeless and holiday greetings with another. Only one noticed my dog and he giggled. The sheriff received no respect today.

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Sheep Creek Delta

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Happy Saint Lucy day little dog. Aki looks at with me like someone who had to watch a trusted friend eat warm saffron buns with his morning coffee while all she had to look forward to was a breakfast of dried kibble. Fortunately she forgot about my neglect by the time we climbed into the car for a drive out to the Sheep Creek delta.

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Using our car’s magic blue tooth connector, we listen to music recorded on my phone. This morning that device doesn’t allow me to choose songs. Instead we have to settle for an eclectic mix tape as the phone shuttles through my music library. After The Pogues finish a song about brown eyes, Yo Yo Ma starts playing one of the more obscure Bach cello suites. We reach the trailhead before the phone can shuttle over to the Texas Tornados. As if she doesn’t care for Bach, Aki bursts out of the car and into a heavy rain when I opened the door.

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It’s high tide so most of the delta is under water. What seems like every mallard in the greater Juneau area hugs the beach or sleeps on it. When I close the car door, one of the mallards makes a sarcastic chuckle. Crows have crowded onto the mid-channel navigation aid. More of their murder stand on a nearby gravel bar even though it is covered with a inch of water. When the tide turns in a few minutes and retreats from their gravel bar, the crows will fly to another one closer to the beach that was dry when theirs was wet.

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We won’t see or hear an eagle during our beach walk. But on the drive home the car will pass under a trio of them jockeying for position over a beach with a brace of stubborn ravens. The center of their temporary universe is something dead. I look on the beach but see only rocks and rubble.

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