© 2020 Donna Hébert, all rights reserved.
You’d think, being a musician, I’d be stalked by songbirds tweeting pretty melodies. Instead, ravens, with their fringed, feathery, Roman noses and decidedly un-musical voices, are my daily companions here on the island. There’s a pair loitering on the homestead that are either siblings from this year’s hatching or a mated pair. I see them foraging every day. They fly by with the egg shells we’ve put out in the woods and fight over them. Canny, they resist most efforts to photograph them (I snuck this one of the pair on the wire) but their presence is constant. This is their territory, the nearest open patch of land for foraging.
Alone, you might mistake one for a crow, whose Latin name is corvus brachyrhynchos or “raven with a small nose,” but ravens are heftier and taller as well. Size difference notwithstanding, ravens do have a relationship with the crows and I’m pretty sure they communicate with each other. I see both mobbing hawks here. Fearless, ravens are even described by Roger Burrows in Birds of Atlantic Canada as “a crow that’s convinced itself it’s a raptor.” Like all corvids, ravens are very curious, always looking for food, with calls that are anything but musical. “KEE-ROOOONK” they croak, banging things on the roof, which we are grateful is not made of metal. Imagine the racket.
For centuries, Native peoples have revered and respected ravens as the bringer of light and as the companion taking souls to their final rest. It’s in the latter capacity that I’m most familiar with the mythic raven. In March 2008, I was touring in Arizona and New Mexico and on an off day, we visited the Grand Canyon (photo left). I thought I’d stepped into a painting and the majesty, the beauty of the landscape was a balm to my heart. In Florida, my father was on his deathbed in hospice and he and I had said a tearful goodbye on the phone. It was a somber day and the band was thoughtful of my feelings. We all noted the omnipresence of the ravens. They ride the thermals at the clifftop so of course, we saw them constantly. The park even sold a tee-shirt with their image on it.
Buffeted by wind, we explored the south rim and enjoyed the rare March sunshine. Around four, we got off one of the jitneys used to ferry visitors around the park. As we stood there, a raven landed right in our circle, looked around until it met my eyes, and settled. The bird’s mouth opened and closed while it uttered clucking noises and whuffled it’s throat feathers in and out. Gobsmacked, we were rooted to the spot. I swung the camera on my wrist up and took this photo, then the bird flew off. Five minutes later, in the parking lot, my cell phone rang. My brother was on the line. Dad had died at about the same time the raven had more or less talked to me. We finished the last day of the tour and then I flew to Florida for Dad’s memorial service.
Back in Massachusetts later that month, band member Max Cohen and I were recording and editing some music. I thought there was outside noise rattling through my head but it turned out to be a tune, a new one. I picked up the fiddle and started playing the first half. Max walked in with his guitar and played the B part. Together, we had just written “The Raven’s Wing,” a tribute to my Dad.
We made a quick demo and I sent the file to my mother and told her the name. “Raven’s Wing,” she mused. “Did you know that was the name of your father’s unit in WWII?” Dad had flown with the Army Air Corps in Italy. Mom continued, “Their newsletter is called ‘The Raven’ and their insignia is three silver ravens on a blue background.” Gobsmacked yet again, I wondered – did my father send a messenger or was that him? Fanciful, perhaps, but it had been, overall, a strange experience, one that led to fancies.
Factor in that I had a pretty volatile relationship with my father. We didn’t get along. I think he was scared that I would go astray, that I was so headstrong I couldn’t be controlled. He was right about that and though he tried, he failed to control me and in the process, we lost our connection to each other.
Still, I am so much like him, hiding my tenderness under a gruff exterior, unable to keep my mouth shut when I know I should. I am my father’s daughter in character and in looks. His stamp is on my face and my daughter’s and he looked like his Hébert ancestors. Those forebears were hard-working Acadian farmers, stubborn-as-hell men and women who never learned to keep their mouth shut, either. That’s who we are.
It was only after my father’s death that I came to know him better through my sister and that is comforting. Today, August 31, 2020, would have been his 96th birthday. It’s my fancy but perhaps the ravens here came to say he was doing just fine with his old friends, soaring the thermals at the cliff edge.
Raven’s Wing – with Max Cohen, Fiddlers Summit 2010, Shepherdstown WV
Raven’s Wing – with fiddlers Bruce Molsky, Robin Bouliane, Pierre Schryer, and guitarist Quinn Bachand at the 2014 La Grande Rencontre in Montreal. This was the first time any of them except Bruce and I had heard the tune but they immediately found the heart of the music and let it soar.