Mysterious Island: Song of the Raven

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Normally, I like to write this column from the perspective of a neutral observer, reporting the Island’s mysteries and historical oddities secondhand from an impassionate perspective.

But this week I’m going to relate to you, Dear Reader, one of my own odd experiences on this, our Mysterious Island.  If you’ve ever suspected that your humble columnist was a few yards short of a First Down (and I have it on good authority that a sizeable population in Avalon already believes so), this week’s  column will only strengthen your hand.

Normally, I like to write this column from the perspective of a neutral observer, reporting the Island’s mysteries and historical oddities secondhand from an impassionate perspective.

But this week I’m going to relate to you, Dear Reader, one of my own odd experiences on this, our Mysterious Island.  If you’ve ever suspected that your humble columnist was a few yards short of a First Down (and I have it on good authority that a sizeable population in Avalon already believes so), this week’s  column will only strengthen your hand.

This story has to do with “corvus corax,” otherwise known as ravens, or one particular raven in this case.

We are all familiar with ravens.  They are part of our Island home and, contrary to the beliefs of some, were not artificially introduced to the Island.  They have been here since long before the arrival of the first humans several thousand years ago.

Another thing you should know about ravens is that they are very intelligent creatures.  They may not seem like it when they are rooting through the dumpsters behind Vons in the wee morning hours, fighting over scraps.

Astute observers of ravens will sometimes see them “talking” to each other and even to other animals.  I watched one morning as our cat seemed to be holding a “conversation” with a raven; a conversation that seemed to be free of any animosity, with no predator-versus-prey strings attached.   (Given the size of this raven relative to our cat, it’s difficult to say who would have played the role of predator and who the prey).

Many cultures over the centuries have held ravens in positions of great respect, albeit usually that respect which is borne of fear and suspicion.  They are often considered the bearers of bad omens, evil avatars from beyond.  As a matter of fact, in that insane world of naming groups of animals (pride of lions, murder of crows, etc.), a group of ravens is known as an “unkindness” of ravens.  (Although a group of ravens in a more benign and sociable mood is referred to as a “storytelling” of ravens).

In Swedish mythology, ravens are thought to be the departed spirits of murder victims and in Germany they represent the souls of the damned.

If you’ve ever visited the Tower of London, you’re familiar with the “unkindness” of massive ravens that inhabit the Tower grounds.  Legend has always held that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the British Empire will fall.  (In an effort to minimize this risk, the wings of these birds are always kept clipped, thereby ostensibly sparing the Empire).

Native American culture is awash in raven lore and the Catalina Island Tongva viewed them as messengers from the god Chinigchinich and were accordingly treated as such.  Early Spanish explorers marveled at how Tongva women, carrying baskets of freshly caught fish would willingly give up their catch to any ravens who came upon them.

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, portrayal of ravens is Edgar Allen Poe’s classic “The Raven,” in which the protagonist is visited by a raven bearing the singular, ominous message “nevermore.”

Unbeknownst to many, ravens have a versatile repertoire of sounds they can produce far beyond their familiar cawing and throaty clicking noises.  They can mimic the sounds of many other birds and even non-avian critters.  They have even been known to mimic human speech and can sing beautiful songs.

And that brings us to my story: Not so long ago, I found myself in Jim Pyke’s old curio and collectibles shop on Sumner Avenue called Tradewinds.  It was the habit of a group of us—Malcolm Jones, Danny Guzman, Sara Gallacher, Randy and Mary Brannock and others—to meet over coffee semi-daily and discuss the world, such as it is.

Jim kept a wide variety of musical instruments for sale in his shop, some of which I had procured for him on my buying trips to Mexico and South America.

I had only recently begun to reacquaint myself with the piano after a twenty-year lapse and on this occasion decided to bang out the opening rifts of Claude Debussy’s dreamy, iconic “Clair de Lune” on a handy xylophone.  I had just begun learning this classic and translating it from the piano to the xylophone only complicated things.

After suitably botching this masterpiece, I laid the sticks down and immediately noticed an odd, but strangely beautiful sound coming from outside the store.  Could it be?  Yes, it was someone singing the same opening bars of Clair de Lune and doing a far better job of it than I.

I walked out onto Sumner to try to identify the source of the melody.  I looked right and I looked left, but saw no one in the street, save a few locals and visitors purposefully intent on conducting whatever business or pleasure was at hand.

Then I looked up.  There, in one of those trees in front of little Antonio’s, I spotted a raven “singing” Clair de Lune in a remarkably beautiful tone.  Its timing was impeccable and every pitch was spot on. What astonished me most was that it was almost as if the bird had to be familiar with the song beforehand because I really hadn’t been playing it very well. (I told you I was just learning it).

Did this raven actually just learn this song by listening in a matter of minutes?  Or, given that many cultures have believed that ravens are the earthly incarnations of departed spirits, could this have been the particular specimen that housed the departed soul of Claude Debussy?

If you have any comments on this week’s column, or would like to share your own raven experiences, please send them to Jim Watson, c/o Camarillo State Mental Hospital, 1878 South Lewis Road, Camarillo, CA  93010.  All parcels will be inspected for sharp objects.

Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available on Amazon, Kindle, and in stores all over Avalon.

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