Thursday, May 24, 2018

A conspiracy of ravens

For some time, a pair of ravens has been nesting in the steeple of the Gimli Unitarian Church, much to the delight of people passing by – especially visiting Icelanders, it seems – and much to the annoyance of people who care about practical matters, like compromised shingles and moisture damage. I mistakenly thought they were crows until someone who knew better told me to take a closer look. Church leaders once had the nest removed by the Gimli Fire Department, hoping the ravens would make themselves a home in a better neighbourhood – a tall tree somewhere – but they returned and it is hard to escape believing that they’ve somehow become attached to the place.

Whatever the reason for the ravens’ staying power, having watched David Suzuki’s episode of The Nature of Things that examined the superior intelligence, memory, and remarkable ability to recognize human faces on the part of their cousins, the crows, I’m reticent to upset any members of this branch of the bird family and risk their ire, having seen what they can do to people who offend them. I used to fantasize about seeing a steeple without a nest, but “corvicide” is now out of the question because, while a group of crows may be called a murder, a group of ravens is known as an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy” – and I’m not inclined to tempt fate by inviting either. People love them and they’ve waged a very successful publicity campaign in recent years, having become the subjects of feature stories in newspapers along with favourable mentions on radio and TV. They have become inescapable tenants.

I suspect that the reason visiting Icelanders, in particular, appreciate seeing them nesting on the steeple is that Icelanders, alongside North America’s Indigenous people, have an inordinate fondness for ravens (and even their close cousins, crows) which figure positively in the folklore of both people. In pretty much every other culture, these birds are viewed with disdain, but not among Icelanders and Indigenous people. I’ve stopped sharing my former desire to get rid of the nest with visitors from Iceland, since they have universally expressed their disapproval at the very thought of it, some suggesting that we should consider the ravens’ presence to be a good omen. It should be remembered, though, that these are the same people who compliment me on the dandelions in my lawn, sometimes expressing their envy that I’m so fortunate as to enjoy the beauty of such an abundant crop of wildflowers in my own yard. What can you really expect from people who think that eating putrefied shark and fermented rams’ testicles is a good idea?

The more strident raven-lovers from Iceland have reminded me that there are folktales and poems about clergymen who have run afoul of ravens nesting in their churches, warning me that I do not wish to share their fate. Ravens can be harbingers of kindness and wisdom, but also death and destruction. Choose kindness and wisdom, my Icelandic friends and family seem to be saying.

As it turns out, I’ve developed a growing fondness for both ravens and crows. At our country home, Huldukot, the ravens and crows visit in alternating conspiracies and murders. (That sounds rather ominous, doesn’t it?) Cindy has noticed that when I’m sitting at the dining room table and these birds see me, they call to me to bring them peanuts. She has also noticed that I seem to respond to their calls faster than one of Pavlov’s dogs. So I now welcome each murder and conspiracy as it arrives without any hint of unkindness. And I’m looking forward to seeing the resident ravens of the church welcome people to Gimli from its steeple this summer.

The author with the raven's nest in the steeple behind him.

This post appears as the editorial in the May 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.