“The raven is the paragon of the air, and more. It is assumed to be the brains of the bird world. It has a greater variety of calls than perhaps any other animal in the world except human beings. It is an imposing bird.”
In the midst of a rough month — work issues for my husband, boyfriend problems for my daughter, legal problems for a friend, frustration with taxes and government institutions for myself — I lose my sense of balance. I feel ornery, short-tempered.
One day I drive into town. It’s fifteen minutes down a straight road bordered mostly by trees and woods (though even that is changing as more houses and developments pop up — another cause for frustration). It’s a cold, clear day in the middle of winter. After a few miles a raven swoops across the road in front of me. Ravens almost always make me smile. Up ahead I see more of them, perched high in snowy trees. Once you acquire an eye for ravens, you know where to look. Sometimes, you feel their presence without ever seeing them.
At the grocery — a favorite gathering place for ravens — they peer over the edge of the flat roofed store. Guardians of the parking lot! Dark, shiny-eyed Alaskan gargoyles! Before the lot is too crowded (and sometimes even when it is), a few brave ravens scuffle on the hoods of cars or hop on the ground — an odd, endearing combination of rabbit and bird — picking through litter for any hidden treasures of food.
On this particular day, a large gathering convenes at the far end of the parking lot. (A group of ravens is called a ‘congress’, a ‘constable’ a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘unkindness’. But these are human names, designating narrow observations about ravens — how they look over or protect; band together in secret ways to work against other animals, to hunt, taunt or torment.) They have pulled apart several sacks of burgers and fries left overnight in the trash bin by the fast food restaurant. Twenty-two ravens. They grab at bits of bun and burger, fries sticking from their beaks like flat, pale cigars. I marvel at their festive, jubilant energy — for here is a party! a feast! a celebration!
For a moment, I consider Raven’s teaching — a powerful medicine for some, feared or deemed ‘dark’ by others. Some cultures view Raven as an ominous messenger of death, associated with black magic, especially having the ability to manipulate the behavior or perception of others. Ravens are seen as secretive, mysterious, arcane symbols of what is hidden. For others Raven is a messenger, a guardian, a teacher of communication — facilitating clear articulation of thoughts and messages between species. Raven is also known as a shapeshifter, an expert guide in merging consciousness with others, understanding their language and world views by becoming one of them. It is in this way that I most feel akin to Raven, for several times I have seen through Raven’s eyes, feeling the pressure of air against my face, sensing the movement of a robust, streamlined body, raising or lowering my wings to sail without effort, becoming one with the wind. Raven helps us shift between worlds, teaching us to move lightly, dexterously, as we shift the very shape of our being.
I watch the ravens disperse, their meal consumed. Several take off in a flurry, flying past me, up to the flat roof of the grocery, while others hop-fly to claim their own spaces in the lot. If you have the patience to remain motionless for a time, Raven may approach — curious, yet wary. Stay still until she comes closer, close enough that you may see the texture of her black, glossy feathers, or the way the small chest, head and leg down puffs out, appearing almost furry at times (yet another aspect of Raven’s shapeshifting abilities). If you are very lucky, Raven may turn to regard you with her dark, gleaming eye. There are secrets deep within Raven’s gaze. Specialized knowledge of flight and freedom. And perhaps some secrets you might not yet want to know.
A small group of ravens (a troupe, a band, a parade — why not these descriptions, too?) fly across the road to a hollowed area, a bowl in the land formed by the rise of a road and hill on one side, a car wash and other buildings arcing around the other. I sense a curious confluence of temperatures and air pressure in that depression, for often I have seen ravens playing there, hanging motionless within a thermal that seems to rise from the center of the bowl and then plume outward. Although I can’t see the thermal, I feel its presence, its funneled shape and powerful lift. And already I am rising high with the ravens — an ensemble of seven — circling the thermal, preparing for the game we play when opportunity presents.
My protocol to join Raven is twofold: asking with an open heart and sense of adventure; then, sliding in, suspending the human notion of gravity, luxuriating in the freedom to fly. Feel the way the air cups your belly, how it pushes up like a soft cushion, supporting you, through the full width of your outstretched wings.
As ravens, we circle the thermal. Speedy, graceful, angular folds of feathers — gleeful comrades, dancers, thrill seekers, too! Each taking our turn inside the center. To enter is easy — a dip of the wing and there you are. Aloft within the plume. Wind circling, wings tilting. The trick is finding the sweet spot. To hover motionless yet full of motion. The air both within and without. Perfect equilibrium.
There is a sweet spot both in consciousness and upon the thermal plume. A place where within meets without, dimensions merging into a void that is both empty and full, nothing and everything. A place where Raven smiles.
Coming back to myself, I cannot help but smile too. The shift from living life to feeling life live through you seems so subtle — yet how it changes everything! Such moments can be fragile, fleeting, but so also are they reminders, markers within the natural world that assure us this experience is real and available to us all, to draw upon in any moment, every moment. The Ravens know — just one of their secret teachings.
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The drawings used in connection with this article are the work of artist, Ola Liola from the book, “Animal Teachings by Dawn Brunke. Visit the artist’s site at http://www.olaliola.com