Yesterday we walked up towards the cloud that was sweeping across the hills. Apart from one of two spots of last week’s snow, a few clumps of sheep’s wool snagged on fences, glistening spider’s webs, and some strange whitish patches of what looked to be fungal growth on worn out grass, all was brown, green, and pale grey. And silent. Wonderfully silent. Or so it seemed at first.
There were signs of habitation everywhere. Badger runs, fox poo, deer paths, and small holes everywhere. But badgers and foxes have become largely nocturnal, and deer are adept at camouflage and evasion.
In their absence we mythologise -anthropomorphise, romanticise- their defensive liminality, perhaps? We once saw a herd of fallow deer at this very spot. A local landowner used to keep them, so they had probably escaped his clutches. Amongst them was a white doe, more magically real, for me at the time, than any folk tale hind. But that dream-like moment has now receded into memory and story …
Whilst I tend to gaze into the distance, or up at the sky, my other half scans the ground for tiny plants and evidence of small creatures. So it was she who noticed this fine example of a bank vole (?) run. We’d been hearing a lot about how mice and voles survive the winter by running about in tunnels beneath the snow. This appeared to be a perfect example, revealed by the retreating snow a few days previously. If you click to enlarge the photo you’ll see that the grass above the tunnel entrance has been neatly clipped.
Gazing into the distance, I was suddenly jolted by a voice emanating from the swirling mist. The voice was familiar, warm, throaty, quite high pitched. Another similarly resonant voice replied. Then all went silent for a while. I stared into the formless mass that softened the rockface and refashiond the hillside, and waited. Then the voice spoke again.
I offer the following inexpert translation of what was being said:
“I think I’ll just pop over there dear …”. “Oh, all right then. If you must.” “I won’t be long”. “Love you”. “Love you too”.
Since one of the ravens eventually emerged from the cloud and headed on slowly flapping wings for the other side of the valley, this wasn’t difficult to deduce. As I’m sure you’ll know, ravens are very expressive birds. Their voices and body language are relatively easily read by humans -indeed they’ve been kept as pets because they can mimic human language.
Many testimonies confirm that ravens can be joyful, mischievous, impressively angry, or peaceful. Yes, they do feed on carrion, and yes, like carrion crows they peck the nutritious eyes of dead animals. Their power and resilience has long been respected. Some cultures regard them as prophetic, and venerate them for their proximity to the divine.
But when I come across them they often seem to be expressing love and affection for their lifelong partners. Forget Christian imagery of the raven as bird of desolation, foreboding, and unclean-ness, that led to a long history of persecution. Forget pagan imagery of the raven as a battle mascot for imperialistic warlords. Hugin and Munin may have muttered prophetic truths in Odin’s ear, but what really mattered for them, I’m quite sure, was each other! A chance encounter with a Raven always lifts my spirits.
*note 12/2/15 – I’d mis-remembered Ted Hughes’s description of a Pike as ‘magically solid’, meaning ‘both ancestral dream figure and ordinary living fish’. (see Letters of Ted Hughes, Christopher Reid, ed p631). That white deer felt both materially present and dreamlike, not least because of a local folk tale.
Mark Cocker, Birds and People, Jonathan Cape, 2013.
Francesca Greenoak, British Birds, their Folklore, Names, and Literature, Christopher Helm, 1997.
Derek Ratcliffe, The Raven, A Natural History in Britain and Ireland, T and A D Poyser, 1997.