A Talk with Raven


One evening, in a discussion of his personal problems, Raven asked Brown Bear,  ” What is the role of character in Zen practice?”

Brown Bear said, “I try to keep my promises.”

Raven said, “I try to keep my promises too, but I’m easily distracted.”

Brown Bear said, “The cold wind reminds me.”

~ Robert Aitken

“Brronk, brronk! Brronk, brronk!” I heard the sound, a deep baritone voice, and even before I could think that much about it, I was outside looking skyward. High atop a Monterey cypress, I saw the dark figure. I called back to it, doing my best to imitate a voice not my own and not my peoples. “Brronk, brronk”, I called back masking my humanness with an avian tone. It responded with a similar tone and cadence. I responded with my best corvid croakiness. “Brronk brronk”. And then I switched things up to illustrate to my older daughter the difference between a raven’s voice and that of a crow. “Aawww aawww”, I said. And as if to prove me wrong, the raven came back with a crow-like “kaaw kaaw”. A practitioner of imitation, a master of language and a right intelligent bird!

A northwest Native American tale from the Haida talks about raven’s voice:

“As you know the raven has two voices, one harsh and strident, and the other one….a seductive, bell-like croon which seems to come from the depth of the sea, or out of the cave where the winds are born. It is an irresistible sound, one of the loveliest in the world.”

I know the sound that is “harsh and strident” and I find it irresistible as well. Upon hearing it, if I am outside, I immediately fall into conversation with raven as well call back and forth, saying much talking of nothing.

Today this is just what I needed; to be drawn outside, both physically and mentally and both outside of the house and outside of myself. Yesterday I sat all day in a square room with no windows, no skylights (no natural light at all), no fresh air and no connection to the outdoors except for the occasional escapee from our conference. The conference was actually quite good but the way I felt after spending an entire day inside the inside (a completely interior room) was strange. I felt disconnected and not me.  I felt off-balanced and off-center.

There are numerous stories involving raven throughout the Pacific northwest of North America but certain characteristics of raven remain the same. Raven is often a magical creature who is able to take the form of human, animal and inanimate object, and is seen as a trickster focused on satisfying his own gluttony (a trickster much like coyote as told in other parts of North America). Stories with raven often tell of how worldly things came to be, including first humans, and highlight his creativity and cunning.

One has to be careful with raven for his cunning and intelligence are usually used to satisfy his own desires (recently we have found ravens inside our chicken coop stealing eggs). Perhaps raven uses language and conversation to bring you in and to gain your confidence in order to deceive you in some way. This is what the northwest Native America stories would lead me to believe. But just as raven has two distinct voices, perhaps he has two distinct roles to play: one of trickster and one of weaver. Through language, we all weave a carpet of truth and fiction, one of past, present and future. And a conversation is really the use of language to connect and reconnect with one another and with the world around us. I don’t know what raven was saying to me today; perhaps he was trying to trick me in some way, but I know what I felt. I felt back in balance and centered again and reconnected with myself and the world. And after a bizarre day stuck way inside, that was the right trick for me.