That night we sat in the dark, no fire to light our camp, only a bath of stars. Stoves set aside, we ate dinner from battered metal pots and discussed what we had seen. For years we had wondered what ravens did behind the curtains, and now we knew. But did we really know? We agreed that ravens living in this desert probably formed long-lasting alliances. The same families may have been here for centuries, if not
thousands of years. Knowing their tendency to have regional variations in behavior and vocalizations, we thought that these groups were probably insulated out here, becoming clans of a sort, each belonging to its own part of the land. Why not imagine that they had made covens of themselves, secret societies gathered inside lost canyons? Ravens, after all, can remember detailed events from certain locations. Researchers have noticed that when something catastrophic occurs in a nesting area, those ravens do not come back the next season. When a power line is cleaned of nests, the ravens will not return, even if they have been profitably nesting there for generations, as if the place fell under taboo. Most birds come back no matter how many nests they lose within the space of several generations. Consider woodpeckers dauntlessly returning to plugged holes, and swallows rebuilding nests knocked down season after season. Ravens know better. They have memory, history.
Questions arose between us. What did we truly know of this animal?
What we had witnessed in the canyon could have been a hallowed death ceremony as much as it could have been a gang incident, Bloods driven to a frenzy over the corpse of a Crip. Or none of the above, an assembly beyond our imagination, something excruciatingly simple, bogglingly complex. We had only metaphors to work with.
Anthropomorphism is generally frowned upon. It is said to be improper to see animals the same way we view ourselves. We are asked to temper our language when speaking of animal traits, lest we call them by a name that is not theirs, forming words in our mouths that do not sound like a snake’s whisper, a grasshopper’s clicking. It seems just as odd, though, to sequester ourselves in a cheerless vault of sentience, sole proprietors of smarts and charm. Bees form a mind of a hive, don’t they? Doesn’t the bear dream when it sleeps, and don’t grasses stretch with all their might toward the sun? Every living thing has the same wish to flourish again and again. Beyond that, our differences are quibbles.
I do not want to be a lonely species set adrift from all the rest. I want the ravens that we saw to have been performing a ritual, animals of sensibility. I envision a righteous murder performed by birds living in a moral universe. I yearn for them to have societies, secret handshakes and knocks, associations and enterprises.
With our dinner pans laid down on smooth bedrock, my companions and I talked back and forth, and I wondered if the ravens were doing the same, somewhere, while bright and countless eyes of stars looked coldly down on us all.
This essay is excerpted from the book THE ANIMAL DIALOGUES by Craig Childs. Copyright © 2007 by Craig Childs. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company; all rights reserved. Though it is factual, The MOON filed it under Short Stories, as it reads like fiction.