Thursday, August 21, 2014

Alaska Shorts: Raven’s Letter to Edgar, 
by Ned Rozell

Ned Rozell

Dear Edgar:

I was poking around in a bin of opportunity (“Dumpsters” to your type, with a capital D for some reason) the other day and came across a newspaper that said you died in October 160 years ago. Bummer. I had seen your famous poem about us, in another bin (you wouldn’t believe what people throw out), and I wanted to chew your ear for a minute.

First of all, thanks for calling us “stately” on first reference. I’m with ya. In fact, we’re the real state bird of Alaska, no matter what those placemats say. Willow ptarmigan — whose idea was that? You ever see a willow ptarmigan with personality? Take a poll of Alaskans, Eddy, they’ll give you their state bird, the same “ebony bird” you made famous in 1845.

No other creature has the guts to go where we go. Climbers on Denali try to hide their food from us at 17,000-foot high camp, but it doesn’t work. We wait until they throw a bit of snow over their food and stagger away. Then we dig it up and poke away. Easy money.

And the oilfields around Prudhoe Bay — no trees, blowing snow, about a gazillion below in winter. Those big-money workers up there do a Christmas Bird Count every year, and they record just one species. You know which one it is, baby. Biologists up there have seen us nesting in drilling rigs and feeding our chicks when it’s 30 below. Thirty below! Know where the robins are then, Edgar? Florida! One biologist named Stacia captured a few of us up there to fit us with wing tags. She had trouble re-capturing us for her studies, so — get this — she wore a fake moustache to fool us! But we still know it’s her.

We only hang out in Prudhoe because your type is there, Edgar. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you guys are slobs. You don’t finish what you eat. Today, humans are what wolves were 250 years ago. Once, we were all over the Great Plains, and today we’re not. It’s not that we don’t like wide-open spaces, it’s just that there’s no more bison there, and there’s no more wolves, who, like furry can-openers, would open the buffalo for us.

It’s kind of odd you lived on the East Coast, Edgar. It’s hard to find a raven in Baltimore, except for those ones on the football helmets (Purple ravens?! C’mon guys, black is beautiful!). Today we prefer the West Coast and the far North, from Baja to Barrow. We really like caribou and other prey species, and in Alaska there’s more caribou than people, and there’s lots of wolves and bears left to scatter carcasses around the landscape for us. Ever picked at a fleshy backbone on a hot summer’s day, Edgar? Heaven.

Back to your poem. Let me see if I remember it: Once upon a midnight dreary, after rapping on a chamber door, a raven stepped into a dark parlor, perched on a bust of a Greek goddess, and terrified a bereaved lover by answering all his questions with the word “Nevermore.”
I heard that a University of Alaska Fairbanks English professor once picked apart your poem like we do a road-killed red squirrel. He suggested your narrator’s ingestion of opium might have given the raven its voice. That’s baloney. We talk all the time. We squawk, we knock; we make sounds like rocks thrown into water. A Fairbanks scientist who followed us around with a recorder came up with 30 distinct phrases in the raven dictionary. Lucky for him he couldn’t translate them.

The farther I read into your poem, the more you punch up the descriptions. You describe the raven as ghastly, grim, ungainly, gaunt, ominous, grave, a devil, a thing of evil, a fiend and a demon. I’m flattered, but others have held us in pretty high esteem. In Norse mythology, for example, the god Odin employed two ravens with the names Thought and Memory to fly the world and inform him of what was happening out there. We were less dependable for Noah, when a pair of us failed to return to the ark after he sent us to search for land. We probably found some carcasses out there; why go back for hard-tack and scurvy?

In Alaska, we’re treated as we should be. Every Native group has raven stories. In many stories, including those of the Tlingit, Haida, and Koyukon, Raven is the god who created the sun, the Earth, the stars, the moon, and humankind. We are also the tricksters who deceive others in our endless quest for food. True, all true. And tell me, Edgar, what has the moose created? Nothing but moose nuggets.

A biologist once told Ned Rozell that Alaska contains large chunks of nothingness because of two things — bugs and cold air. He has cursed both in a few decades of wandering ice and muskeg but has hiked on due to the fact that he just can't figure out how wolves get enough to eat. This excerpt from “Raven’s Letter to Edgar” comes from the Alaska Sampler 2014, a free e-book.

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