“Look at those. They’re huge,” I said to my father.
“They must be ravens,” he replied, as the two large black birds flew off into the interior of the Sunset Crater National Monument. I hadn’t thought too much about ravens up to that point, but now the much-maligned creature hovers over my memories of the trip.
The raven is often seen as a harbinger of bad news, in part because of their black color. Since they feed on carcasses they are associated with death, though depictions vary. Some cultures regard them as godlike, while the ancient Greeks considered the raven a symbol of good luck. The Brits, for their part, have a superstition that if the ravens in the Tower of London ever fly away the monarchy will fall and Britain will crumble.
While related to “pesky crows,” as my young nieces call the bird’s smaller cousin, ravens are usually larger, prefer open spaces to urban areas, travel in mated pairs rather than larger groups, produce a low croak instead of a cawing sound and have bigger, broader beaks and wedge-shaped tails.
Ravens are intelligent creatures with an omnivorous and opportunistic diet. In addition to carrion they feed on, among other things, fruit, small animals and food waste.
While taking my first sips of coffee in Sedona, Arizona, the morning after our raven sighting, I happened upon a post from a college acquaintance that eulogized one of my former suitemates.
My mind was taken back to a part of my life it doesn’t revisit often, and I had three clear visions of my departed friend: the first in his ridiculous Superman shirt, shouting at a fellow suitemate, most likely about the import of some scene in a Kubrick film, as I sit near them, ostensibly trying to study while enjoying their thespian banter.
In the second he plays a doomed syphilitic man in a play, the name of which I can’t recall. I thought I was witnessing the birth of a star.
The third is of him trying a particularly dangerous hard drug, perhaps for the first time. I remember standing up, not willing to express my disgust, looking around the dark and pungent room at the people lounging, some on the bed, him in a chair, a few more on the floor, jungle – a type of electronic music – blasting. I walk out, close the door behind me, take a few steps and enter my room across the small hall. Hours later the still-pulsating deep bass finally lulls me to sleep.
Later that morning in Sedona as we headed out for the day I told my companions what I’d learned through the vagaries of the Facebook algorithm. My father asked if I knew how my friend died. I said I wasn’t sure but I could speculate.
I feared the world had lost another talented but troubled person to drugs. Later that day our suitemate told me our friend had committed suicide, that he’d seen him a while back and he’d been struggling with depression.
Though I hadn’t seen him for years, the news of my friend’s untimely passing knocked me back. The world is a bit emptier, and definitely less interesting, without him. I wish only that he could have gotten the help he needed before it was too late. May his beautiful but conflicted soul rest in peace.
The day before, after dropping my companions at the entrance to the Wiupatki National Monument and parking our well-outfitted behemoth of a rental, I’d noticed a raven perched on a sign. Stealthily focusing my camera, I managed one still picture before my subject took flight. The second shot captured outspread wings and backside as the ink-black bird flitted away.
One of the best-known depictions in English-speaking cultures comes from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem titled, simply and appropriately, “The Raven.”
Poe’s bird utters only the refrain “Nevermore,” refusing to leave the room of the lonely and downcast narrator who pines for his lost love Lenore.
In Poe, the raven is a symbol of grief and enduring depression.
The third and final full day of my trip brought us to the Petrified Forest National Park in the northeastern part of the state. We slowly wound our way through the Painted Desert section, stopping perhaps a few too many times to take picture of scenes that – though stunning – didn’t vary too much.
My passengers told me whenever they wanted to stop, and knowing we had a lot to see in the more southerly reaches, I resisted the urge to stop at every turnout.
Seeing a sign for Newspaper Rock but not knowing what it was we blew right past. A few minutes later we encountered the stunning blue mesas at the beginning of the badlands of the Petrified Forest, but not before my father, having consulted a guidebook, noted the rock is home to intricate and well-preserved petroglyphs. We headed back.
Pulling into a large parking lot, my two companions followed the marching tourists to a lookout behind us at the edge of the lot.
I too eventually made my way – and the petroglyphs alone were well worth the trip – but first I got close enough to almost reach out and touch two more ravens, one perched on the hood of a car and another foraging for food among the many bits of litter left behind by impolite visitors.
These ravens understood that the mass of humanity collecting in the large lot, in an area otherwise fairly bereft of humans on foot, were no threat but instead possible sources of sustenance.
Early in the trip a roadrunner had – befitting its name – run across the road in front of our car (Wile E. Coyote did not follow, at least not that I witnessed), and later on a rabbit similarly crossed our path, and though there were other food sources throughout the large park, the clever ravens seemed to be doing just fine in the rough high desert.
Far from a frightening creature of ill omen, I was impressed by the ravens and began to think of them as welcome companions on the uncertain journey that is life.
Though the world presents many challenges, the raven perseveres. The raven survives.
Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of Maricopa and Pima counties and the United States District Court for Arizona for more than a decade. CNS also provides regular in-person coverage in Yavapai, Pinal, Mohave, Apache, Navajo, Yuma, Coconino and Cochise counties.
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