Breakfast With Ravens
One day last spring a raven flapped in and landed beside our new deck. He whooshed off when he saw me come out the back door with my coffee.
“Nice deck,” he said, lofting onto a branch. “But really--what’s that all about?”
“I can hear those thoughts you’re thinking,” I said back to him.
“Good trick,” he responded.
“By the way,” his thoughts continued. “I’ve been documenting human behaviors for some time now, but I haven’t figured out the attraction of sitting on top of a bunch of boards nailed together in rows. Why you want to cover up all that soft grass is beyond me.”
"Well, I wouldn't spend a lot of time figuring humans out," I said. "We're an inscrutable lot. Have some toast," I offered, tossing him a crust.
After some serious deliberation, he hopped forward and snatched the bread.
Ravens and crows are, apparently, the smartest of the bird world with a language of their own that includes specific vocabulary, grammar and syntax. They’re way smarter than geese who can’t even hold the location of a bread crumb tossed out by a human, in their short term memories. Crows exploit this by covering such offerings with nice fat leaves. The geese are baffled, the crows get rich.
Like a raven, the voice of the crow packs a powerful punch. Their edgy voices jazz up the forest. They hold mini rock festivals in trees-- howling and strutting like Mick Jagger on rooftops. They growl and croak like the Duke from telephone wires and throw Led Zeppelin screeches across whole forests. They can croon seductively like Sarah Vaughn from within deep woodsy shadows or twang out country tunes like Willie Nelson in a cornfield. They are the rock stars, blues singers, and country western artists of the avian world. Their voices challenge me to get out of bed for God’s sake. They trick, scold, cajole and gafaw, until we sit up finally and wonder what the ruckus is about.
When I finally started singing again though a little over a decade ago, it wasn’t the Crow or the Raven that got my attention. Oh no. I needed some serious vocal medicine and apparently there was only one bird strong enough for that; the vulture. Black as death. He led me laughing into caverns of despair where my lost voice was lurking about like an angry ghost. I had to go in if I was going to find it. No one else was brave enough to take me down but him. He clamped on to my scalp with his sharp talons and didn’t let go until one day I let out a scream long and loud enough to finally shoo him off. When he was gone and my neck straightened out again, a hoarse chirp escaped my throat.
Apparently the scream unblocked something within. Thereafter, I began, against all odds, to sing again. That Raven though, he's the one that got me going. He jazzed me. "Sing from your thighs woman. Look...BE the earth the way I'm the earth. Don't hold back. Use the muscle of your throat. Howl." Of all my woodland teachers, he taught me the most about letting it rip. He's still teaching me.
There are many other fine soloists in my forest home who, in fact, have been teaching me for a long time, though it has taken me a while to take their lessons to heart. Investigating the qualities of bird song, understanding their various cadences, prosodies, and melodies more deeply has sparked a new appeciation of vocalizing as it relates to human singing.
The winter wren, for instance, is a small, brown, visually unassuming bird but his song is rhythmically complex, tonally compelling, incomparably energetic, endlessly varied and anointed with talent. I’m pretty sure he’s Italian. If he had hands he'd be using them for emphasis. He’s the supreme tenor with a voice that trills, flows, purrs and spills out pure coloratura. His melody trails like a comet through morning air. His song is primordial, complicated and endlessly rhythmic. When I’m lucky enough to catch his song on my recording device, loop its sections and improvise with him, I discover new layers, flavors and nuances of his music--and mine.
On our walks my husband, Jonathan, stops to look at every wildflower. He stoops down to inspect every trillium, and lifts the bulbous lady slippers tenderly between his fingers. He has to touch them. My need is more urgently aural and I stop instead for every bird song— auditory flowers. Each has its own mystery and warble. Each one plays a part in creating the living forest. I fancy I can see their song lines criss-crossing through the air, between the trees. Their songs serve as avian currency, language, and politics--constructing a living eco-network visible only to the naked ear.
One day I got hold of some old Roger Tory Peterson vinyl birdsong recordings; stubby little disks with the big hole in the center. I put one on JP’s old turntable and the first birdsong to play was the hermit thrush. It was a little scratchy because the record was old but there was no mistaking what Thoreau named those “cool bars of melody from the atmosphere of everlasting morning and evening.” I turned the revolution rate down to 70. Not slow enough. I slowed it further with my finger and listened again.
What emerged was so compelling I held my breath—pausing to be certain I hadn't mixed up the record with some Puccini opera recording. “Eee-oh-lay, Eee-oh-lay eee” came the long clear tones. I slowed the song down even further. Amazing. Maybe this is how birds hear each other I thought—in tones so pure and intervals so stunning, they absolutely have to answer each other.
From that point on, I made a pact with myself to listen to birds for a whole year and understand what they had to teach me about singing. I learned about the reasons they sing, how their double voice boxes allow them to sing duets with themselves and how extensive their repertoires can be. I watched them fly around in an ether of music conducting their lives in an undulating ocean of air, sometimes full of sound, sometimes full of silence. I learned how intertwined their songful communities and economies are and how they ebb and flow. During breeding season they might sing relentlessly, and then they remain quiet for much of the year offering up a few chirps and call notes here and there. I learned their songs as variously, defensive, territorial, plaintive, desire-filled and jubilant. And I watched them just hanging out-- bartering beauty for beauty—mostly at dawn, sometimes at dusk and more or less in between.
Somewhere among the plastic toys coughing sounds at toddlers, the blaring billboards, roaring highways, and commuter trains lurching, we have lost this natural and authentic voice. Finding it again, I mused, as I listened to those fragilely preserved thrush tones on the record, like finding my innocence, may not be possible in this life. I may die first, but like a salmon that has to spawn, I have to try.
What do these birds know that I don’t? For starters, they know for absolute certain who they are. Their voices constitute their identity as much, if not more, than their feathered bodies do. They have no qualms about singing where, how and who they are for the rest of the world to hear. They do not ask what’s my next career move, how will I pay my nest mortgage, or complain “how long am I supposed to be a bird?” They sing for a specific purpose, weaving their peculiar patterns of sound into a powerful force field of blended polyphonic colors, giving particular meaning to voicing as
" ...a dynamic structure of acts of answering: every utterance is an answer to preceding utterances, every act of comprehension is related to an attitude towards answering, and every utterance is produced in anticipation of an answer." (Bakhtin, Bertau)
Maya Angelou says, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” Sorry Maya. I agree with the last half of that phrase but not the first. I've come to believe birds sing both their questions and answers. And they do it in their own language, not ours. They don't sing to perform, as humans understand performance. They do not sing to satisfy an ego the way some humans do. They sing in answer to a thousand questions, a thousand dawns, a thousand other birds AND because they have a song. Moreover they must sing it to survive.
That song is inseparable from sky. It cannot be captured. It is as free and illusive as the unearned beauty a child. Put away your devices and simply listen, these birds have been saying to me. “If you really want to sing, listen to us first. Look for holes in the fabric of the air and find your own song. Sing that one. That's the one the world needs.”