The male flies overhead, hoarse cries fracturing the air into a thousand brittle shards. I can’t see the female, but I know she is there: somewhere behind the redrock face, in some likely nook or alcove, there has to be a nest. He wheels and dives, does a perfect barrel roll, then soars again. Silent now because his mouth is full, he dips toward her hiding spot to deliver tasty gifts. Moments later she rises to my field of view, gorgeous feathers glinting in the afternoon sun. She is too fast, though—gone before the image has a chance to register. They are teasing me, this mated pair—it’s as if they know I desperately want a photograph of wings stretched wide against red cliffs, and so take turns frustrating my attempts. Just an hour of sweet light left, they might be thinking: let’s keep her guessing and she’ll run out of sky or patience. They might be right—it’s been a long day of hiking and shooting, and my memory card is nearly full. I’m looking forward to a shower, a meal, and an ice-cold Dead Horse Ale.
Meanwhile, between futile bursts of effort to get the shot I want, I contemplate the rock before me. It’s classic Colorado Plateau geometry, fins and flutes and raggedy cliffs rising from the arid earth, dotted with stubborn junipers that grip and twine their way into the rock. These unflinching trees are survivors, some centuries old, and have learned to thrive on the little offered here. I love their shapes, their twisted bark, the confounding green in this place of otherwise unleavened earth tones. The headstrong hue is nearly as conspicuous as the raven’s call against the desert silence.
I know a woman, call her Kate, who is a raven singer. She merely has to sit in some wild spot, think of glossy blue-black wings, and they appear—one after the other, a full baker’s dozen sometimes. She offers them no food, no enticement other than her presence, yet they flock to her like bees to luscious nectar. I have seen it, and still not believed. I could use her now, though, to charm these devilish birds into my lens.
The ravens keep up their antics, reminding me of stories about their behavior and intelligence. They use rocks, sticks, and other tools to crack nuts or extract food from crevices, and often work in teams to steal food from other birds or carnivores. They are playful, fast, and wary, and like coyote, they are tricksters, subject of abundant myth and lore.
In our society, ravens are associated with death because they are scavengers, and are often seen as evil or unclean. This view is not the prevailing one, however. Folklore in the Pacific Northwest honors raven for stealing sunlight from its jealous guardian, bringing life and order. Celtic and Alaskan creation myths describe raven’s role in the birth of mankind. And raven is the messenger of Odin, greatest of the gods in Norse mythology. In some cultures, raven is a shapeshifter, able to become or mimic other animals. Teachings among native Southwest peoples say that raven carries messages from the spirit realm, showing us the way to bring light from darkness. Zuni legends associate raven with magic and transformation, and view the bird as a guide to understanding our shadow selves.
Watching them cavort against the surreal blue sky, I’m not interested in the dream world or my darker self—I’m focused on the now, on catching one or both birds before the sun dips too far down and the light is lost. A little sorcery just might help beguile them, I think, and I picture the shot I’m seeking. I send the image out as a silent plea, feeling more than a bit silly to be broadcasting my desire into the wind. Thank goodness I’m alone out here—no one besides the ravens to know what I’ve resorted to. It seems to make no difference, as the birds keep right on doing what they please.
At last my camera finds the male in the right spot, wings reaching for the high clouds overhead and poised perfectly against the bright red rock. I fire off several frames, hoping one will be in focus, hoping one will show the spirit of these birds and of this place. Hoping one will somehow bring the beauty of this untamed spot to those who do not know it, and somehow convey the urgency of saving it–for these amazing birds, for all the other creatures that depend on its stark mercy, and for ourselves.
Back in Moab, I go through the day’s images. Most are ordinary, fins and canyons like so many I’ve seen before, and I hit ‘delete’ more times than I’d care to admit. A few have promise; those I keep for later editing. Finally there are the raven shots, at the tail end of the memory card—most are grossly out of focus, or poorly framed, with a wingtip, one whole wing, or a wedge-shaped tail left only to imagination. Some show the bird well but the background has no punch. Some, despite good framing, crisp focus, and sufficient background, just don’t tug at me. All these join their mediocre cousins in the digital ether. The next to last, though, is different. This is the one I waited that long hour for, the one that is my constant lesson.
It’s a lesson I’ve learned hundreds of times, yet relearn every time I go out in the wilderness: patience is essential in the wild places, especially if one wants lose the self and enter the natural world without presumption. Each time, I go through the same process, shedding layers of stress and care with every step. On this spring afternoon, watching two black birds fly overhead becomes the switching point. Liberated from humanity’s concerns, I feel renewed connection to the true and vital energy of the earth. The wind picks up, blowing through the sandstone fins and tousling my hair. I stretch my arms out, fingers wide, and imagine they are shiny wings, black feathers glinting in the quickly fading sun. I feel as if I could take off, soar over these red rocks and scrubby junipers, and merge with this forbidding landscape. Perhaps raven has worked some magic on me after all.
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