Consider the ravens

Posted on June 16, 2012


“Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them”

Luke 12.24

Taking this advice, it is hard, in modern culture, to travel far past two dark thoughts about ravens. Both, like Jesus’ intonation to his disciples, placed upon the unfortunate bird by man.

First, I learn that the collective noun for a group of ravens is ‘an unkindness’. Whilst, in Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic poem, The Raven’,  the said bird drives the narrator mad, before sending him to an untimely, agonizing, death. A feat achieved by the raven’s unmoving, yet very ill, presence.

All of which, is rather harsh, don’t you think?

Like all carrion, the raven is a feaster on meat, usually some animal killed by another, probably a human. Maybe, this why we place such evil upon the bird, and its brothers, the Crow, Magpie, Jay and Jackdaw. Birds of suspicion, one and all. Finding, perhaps, their choice of sustenance, somehow wrong?.

As in all aspects of anthrozoology, these imaginations are, of course, purely one sided, foolish. For we can never know, just what an animal carries in its heart. Least of all, hope to understand the life force that carries a bird so high on the breeze.

Nevertheless, undaunted by fact, I am a fool, and birds sit at the pinnacle of my inspiration. I mean, can you tell me another creature that has inspired a method of transport? Or, so many lines of poetry? lifted the soul to new heights?

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be”

Rachel Carson. Under the Sea-Wind.

My own raven is majestic. To see those magnificently fingered wings stretching out, each tip playing the wind like a maestro becoming one with a violin, well, it is to see beauty. Today it is alone, and so, not, I think, unkind, but a great, and sadly rare sight.The west of England, fortunate to still have something of a raven population at all.

Maybe, it was due to the bad omens they carried, or, the unfair blame, attached to them by farmers, for livestock deaths, but whatever the reason, our raven population was hunted to extinction in the eastern half of England some time around the turn of the twentieth century.

This, was an ornithicide on a massive scale. Drawing, in its wake, a neat line down the centre of the country. It also means, that today, those ravens who survive as a tourist attraction, guardians against foreign invasion, in the Tower of London, are very much an exception, that prove the rule, of our strange relationship with this brilliant bird.

Tits, are different. Aside the robin and his famous red breast, there is not a more loved bird in Britain than the blue tit. Like the raven, this tiny titmouse, its own wing span barely the size of a pencil, has long held a place in our imaginations. A dreaming, that I continue, in the creation of my garden.

For out there, on a rusty old nail, hanging rather precariously to an outbuilding, I have discovered a whole universe. It is oblong, made of wood, topped by a slanting roof, and has a small hole drilled into the front of it. However, despite its simple appearance, it is truly a world of its own.

Within, is found a miracle. Life. And, an uninvited quest, it is a miracle that I have been blessed to share. First, the prelude. The nervous taking of places. A pair of blue tits, briefly disturbed by a nuthatch trying to claim the box for his own, relentlessly furnished their nest. Tide, after tide, of moss, feathers, and hair carried into the box.

Next, the waiting. The test of patience. Not wishing to disturb their world with my prying eyes, I would listen. Creeping up, beside the bird box, and resting my ear as close to the wood as I dared. Nothing. For weeks, nothing.

Undeterred, I wait some more. Watching, as the birds kept coming and going, as busy as planes taking off and landing at Heathrow. Fetching now, every few seconds, or so, not furniture, but food. Caterpillars, small insects, hundreds of them, thousands.

And then the miracle. Birdsong. High, strangled, and out of tune, a serenade almost lost amongst the symphony sung out by the masters sitting in the heavens above the nest by the nightingale, the blackbird. A sound so faint, that I have to hold my breath to be sure of what I hear, leaning in so close, that I can feel the rough touch of the wood against the skin of my ear.

What wonder. Ten, fourteen, perhaps, depending on the brood, chicks rest in that ark. The rain, and wind, of a miserable English summer, unable to drown their hope. I know, that not all of them will thrive long enough to take a first uneasy flight away from their home. However, for now, that fragile sound is enough. A minuscule voice drumming out louder than a million chattering screams from a television screen.

Having, until the last year, never considered the birds before, I am now transfixed. It is a fine exchange. The birds, flying free, never owned, and yet, indelibly part of our world.  Like most of nature, no doubt, they carry a lessons for us, if only we can find the time to listen.

Just as the parable, told in Luke, does not concern ravens at all, but rather, greed, the hoarding of wealth and possessions, the birds, and the message they have for us, is, I think, about living in the present. About enjoying what we have, before it is gone.

“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing”

Luke 12 : 22