Writers such as Edgar Allen Poe have historically cast the raven as a mythic, foreboding prophet. But a new novel by a Canadian naturalist depicts the black bird as a chatty and even heroic species. Bruce Barcott reviews Raven’s End.
CURWOOD: The Canadian Rockies are part of the home range of the much-fabled bird, the raven. Author and naturalist Ben Gadd makes a living pointing out these big black birds, as a mountain guide in the province of Alberta. He's written a book about the raven, a nature guide in the form of a novel. Bruce Barcott has this review of “Raven’s End.”
| Ravens End, by Ben Gadd (Courtesy of UC Press)
BARCOTT: From the creation stories of Native Americans to the dark murmurings of Edgar Allan Poe, ravens have always been cast as mystical, otherworldly creatures. In Ben Gadd's novel, “Raven's End,” though, the cunning black birds aren't magical tricksters or portents of death. They're as smart, curious, and diabolical as humans— and when they get together, they're as chatty as a church social.
Of course, “Raven's End” is a novel in which everything talks: The ravens, the wolves, the falcons, the trees. Even the wind can't shut up. Gadd, a naturalist and the author of a classic field guide to the Canadian Rockies, has written a kind of “Watership Down” for the Great White North, a story in which a young raven goes on a hero's journey in search of the meaning of life.
Our hero is Colin, a bright, impetuous raven who drops from the sky with no memory of his past. The Raven's End flock of Mount Yamnuska, east of Banff, adopts the orphan as one of its own. Colin's flockmates are a diverse lot. There's eager young Brendan, frail Sarah, wise old Greta, and dark and violent Dolus.
Colin spends his first year learning how to survive as a raven, which entails eating a lot of rotten meat and observing a strict social protocol. Mornings begin with “the Flap,” an all-flock huddle where the birds gossip about freshly killed elk and sheep. After a day of scavenging, the birds regroup for the Evening Flight, where the ravens gab about their adventures and perform an aerial ballet. It's a good life. Or, as Colin says, "By the Trees, it's great to be a raven!"
After apprenticing to wise Greta, who plays Yoda to Colin's Luke Skywalker, our hero leaves his adopted flock to seek his destiny. Like Skywalker, Colin is marked for greatness— which means the evil ravens must either turn him to the dark side, or kill him. I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that, despite perilous challenges, our hero triumphs in the end.
Ben Gadd is a novelist with the heart of a naturalist, which means he spends too many pages explaining the ecosystem and too few revving the plot. I found myself charmed by “Raven's End,” though, despite its author's didactic tendencies. A raven's life, like a human's, can be cold, brutal, and short. But it also offers opportunities to dance in the wind and plunge a beak into a rotting carcass. When I wander through the mountains this summer, I'll have the pleasure of seeing the landscape with new eyes: Those of Ben Gadd, and a raven named Colin.
CURWOOD: Reviewer Bruce Barcott writes about the environment for Outside Magazine.
[MUSIC: Billy Bragg & Wilco "Birds & Ships Mermaid Avenue]
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