The girl who loved Ravens

There was once a girl who loved ravens.

It seemed nobody but ravens really understood. Many ravens lived in her town.
Some days there were so many, it seemed they owned it. Dark shapes circling the sky or sitting sentinel on lamp posts. Caws and arghhs heard above suburban traffic. Strong beaks and clever minds investigated rubbish bins, opened remnants of fast-food meals scattered along the streets. Big glossy purple-blue-black birds with watchful, white eyes and ruffled necks. Many people feared the ravens as underworld messengers, tricksters or harbingers of death. The girl knew them as her friend.

Some heard the spirits and the ancestors in the raven’s call. Their caws that seemed to draw wisdom from the past and neck-stretched arghhs that reached forward into the future soothed the girl. She loved their ruffled necks, their strong beaks and their enquiring bright, white eyes. Many did not understand raven, but the girl did. She sought out their wisdom.

The girl saw where they built nests, high up in the eucalypts. She delighted in their twig-gathering antics and sat for hours as they collected material for their sticky homes. Negotiating long pieces through narrow passages between the branches and leaves. Pulling finer strings from human detritus for the softer, inner lining of their solid nests. Later, she enjoyed the parents teaching young ones. How the comical, dark-eyed ravens played and learned to fly in the old died-back tree behind her house.

An old man lived in the town, strange to the world in his manner; he loved the earth and the ways of birds. His wild garden called them. The ravens built a nest in the tall trees. The old man knew lots about birds, about many things. He had books and a mind full of ideas and facts. He noticed the girl watching the ravens in his trees. He talked with her and, over time, they became friends.

The old man taught her what he knew about ravens and let her look in his books. He explained how ravens would dunk food in water before eating, that humans considered them among the most intelligent of birds. He talked of science and studies and research.

She taught him how to move his body with the ancient science if Qi Gong. It eased some of the pain of his old age and he was grateful. Aged bones and muscles restricted his freedom to explore the streets. The girl’s reports of birds and trees were welcome to his ears. When she told him how ravens talked to her, the old man dismissed such fanciful ideas. However, he appreciated her visits and developed a fondness for her; after all, they both had a deep love and understanding of nature.

Despite the old man’s dismissal, the ravens knew the girl. They cawed gently to each other and to her as she walked the streets; they visited her home and seemed to wait for her at the crossroads.

The girl didn’t always understand people. They had not always been kind and she felt sometimes deeply sad and troubled. Betrayed by some she trusted, she sought solace and comfort in the natural world’s abundance. With her faithful dog, she wandered the banks of the great river that wrapped one side of her town. It was easy to escape suburbia and people.

Here she connected with the earth she loved, trees and breezes, storms and clouds, the moon and stars. To feel the seasons on her skin and twirl with the wind and rain and fire. Delight in the reflection of the sun in the water as it moved between the rocks of the great kymea. Her favourite thing was to walk to that great river and listen, far away from the human world.

Some said the girl lived between the worlds, that she was not of this world. In some ways that was true and in other ways not.

On days when she was particularly troubled and sat alone in the park, picking at the green grass and wishing she could sink into the earth, the ravens came and sat at a respectful distance, cocking their heads as if to say: “Are you okay?” She welcomed their comfort and love – felt safe.

When the tree-eating madness moved through the streets, making way for new houses, she cried. When old trees, seeded pre-colinisation, were munched in the great metal jaws, she rolled in pain, clutching her belly. When creatures died by car she winced, and tears rolled. She spoke words of sorry. Her pain and distress could not be consoled. Not even the whispering of the breeze in the trees brought comfort. She was so afraid.

The old man shook his head, saddened too by what he saw.

A deep, dark, seductive veil of sadness descended around her– so deep it seemed even the birds died in her wake. She found dead birds everywhere: magpies, peewees, small birds, white cockatoos, even ravens. They were dropping from the sky. She felt she should bury the dead but, afraid to touch their still bodies, left them to the ants and maggots. Unable to help, the disquiet became a restless sadness, rumbling deep in her stomach.

Some said it meant there would be a change in her life, that the birds symbolised old parts of her dropping away, that she was transforming. She considered more sinister explanations: they were an omen spelling the destruction of not just her life, but all life.

She pleaded with the skies: “Why are the birds dying?”
The old man said maybe it was the drought, the fires, pesticides or maybe they were just old like him – we all go eventually.

At times, she felt she was looking into a void, the great expanse of emptiness.
At other times, falling in and through it, or just floating in its peaceful nothingness. How could she come back? But the ravens were there. They said she must grow strong, wide, raven wings to traverse the void.

The old man became frail and unwell. She knew he would soon die. She was afraid to see him. Afraid to look death in the eye. She stayed away too long. Then, when she heard that he lay dying, she gathered her courage. She sat by his bed and held his hand. He died peacefully.

After that she was less afraid of death, for she knew the void. The ravens had lent her their wings.

Dead birds stopped following her.

She began to change – grow in strength and confidence. Find more profound ways to honour the earth. With her voice she spoke of the harm humans had done to her and to the land. She wrote letters to the papers about the destruction of trees in the neighbourhood. She asked her friend to join her in cleaning up the waterways, the bottles, papers and other things left in the bush. She began to roar. She stood with her friends in protest at the felling of the forests and the rising seas. The ravens cawed and arghhed and clicked – they were her friends. She sang to the earth and honoured the ancestors. With drum in hand and dog behind, she cawed and arghhed to the earth and it called back. The ravens were there. They followed her. She sang of them.

The earth knew her and nurtured her. Caves along the river wrapped their folded layers of sandstone around her, held her, to whisper secrets of transformation and survival.

But still, she didn’t quite trust the world.

A woman in the town was kind and helpful. She tried to help the girl negotiate the ways of the world. The woman understood her pain and struggle to be in the world but did not know the raven’s song.

One afternoon, the girl saw a dead bird in the woman’s garden – the body of the hugest raven she had ever seen. The still bird’s neck ruffles stirred in the breeze, the legs clawed shut, the recognizance ants trailed darkly towards it. Its white eye dulled in death.

The girl stood frozen in disbelief, fearing the underworld would open up to consume her. She asked the ravens for support.

She told the woman about the dead raven in the garden, but she didn’t seem concerned. She fussed about making tea, rustling biscuit packages, chatting about human world things like rent, employment and food. They drank their tea and talked.

The sound started slowly. The familiar cawing and arghhing … but somehow different. The girl noticed it first. As the intensity grew, she remembered the old man had told her about this. Now she couldn’t believe it was happening. The woman put down her tea and moved to the window.

“What’s that noise?” she asked, pulling back the curtain.
“It’s the ravens,” the girl said gently, knowingly.

Outside, the ravens were gathering, ten, twenty, thirty on the fence and roof. More settled on the telegraph poles, their long throat feathers stirred by the wind.

“We have to bury the bird,” the girl said.

“They have come for a funeral. They want to bury their friend.”
Cautiously, the woman moved through the door. The sky was thick with big black wings and the noise was unbelievable.

“It’s like a scene from Hitchcock’s ​Birds​,” the woman said in awe.

Now there were fifty ravens and more coming. The girl stood in the garden amazed. She looked up to the sky, arms outstretched, twirling this way and that, the cawing and arghhing filling her ears.

Spade in hand, the woman began to make a hole in her garden bed. It was an enormous bird as large as a cat. The girl wished the old man was here. The birds cawed and arghhed, latecomers circling in the street.
Together the woman and the girl lifted the still bird into the hole. The girl spoke words of farewell. They carefully piled soil over the body and when the last feather was hidden – SILENCE. As one, the birds were quiet. What had been a full-throated chorus of raven voices opened into the great silence of late afternoon suburbia.

The woman and the girl looked at each other.
“I dont understand!” the woman said. There was fear in her eyes. “what had just happened?”

Slowly, the birds began to leave, cawing gently, big wings flapping deliberately against the fading light. The girl imagined the old man and the giant raven waving goodbye as they flew away.

“It’s okay,” the girl said, putting her hand on the woman’s arm. “It’s ravens – I love ravens.”

I went to the river

Sleeping out new moon 13 Feb 2021

Doing! Doing! Doing!

Against the shadow of grief

There is not enough water to grow new trees

When the old ones leave , who will hold the water ways?

What then?

I went to the river – the water was green, thick with the dust of land , floodwater green of water new to the system, algae green – they ( the cotton farmers) have graciously just increased the flow but the water level is like covering the front step of a four storey building. Be grateful they say. I went to the lake – it was green – with grass- how pretty they say…

There are weirs, there are systems, there are allocations.

Along the river there are so many bones of fish, from the great death event last summer, where the algal bloom took the oxygen from the water and took the life of thousands of fish including hundred year old fish that had survived so many droughts. It went viral. But the fish died. I found the body of a fish , ants feasting on the bank. I feel to make an artwork of the fish – to honour the fish. I take my camera and make photos to be used later. Studying the dead fish and the way the ants are eating it – I feel a presence behind, and I turn to see there in the middle of the river a huge fish is in the air. Just a second, but I see it and I know it sees me. I am startled ,heart racing. I call out Hello! A cool breeze moves up the river and seems to wrap around me. I have found my teacher, my guide.

I collect rubbish _ including discarded fishing line. I follow the river in the car and practice 4WD. Think of bringing Sal and Jess and others here. There is a forest along the river but its tired. I stop beneath the biggest mother-of-fuck trees and bow before them. Old ,old gnarled  trunks – so over awed I stare.

Across the desert plains to a picnic spot on the edge of the once was lake, trees skeletal, dead, mighty trees. A few old beings hold on to life and the deep once banks. There is not enough water to grow new trees

When the old ones leave , who will hold the water ways?

I am in a caravan park where once water lapped a shore. I didn’t pay to stay because there was nobody to pay. The “we are open sign” had blown onto the ground and collected red sand mud from recent storms. The kiosk sign faded; the “office” deserted. The big sign said Menindee Lake.

I walked to the lake edge and watched the new moon settle down into the horizon. I made notes for my painting. I walk back in starlight and am grateful for the light coloured sand that leads the way.

I slept beneath the stars, the milky way that the ancestors of the  ancestors knew.

I looked – I kept being called to the hunter – Orion’s belt- again and again- because that is what I knew- I craved to know more.

I fell asleep wandering if we see the milky way the same all year round. At different times of night at different seasons. I can’t remember. If feels like there is not enough time to remember.

What are the stars I know? Marvelling at seeing the 3D nature of the milky way. Shooting stars . Thinking about perspective. Where is Emu? Trying to see everything in my head. Seeing new constellations

I wake in the night with the words  “listen to the words of the great mother, who of old was known as Artemis, Dianna, Ahrionrod,  …. And by many other names. I struggle to remember and  to list them in order . I see the goddess in the stars as never before.

I awake in the night  -Ants  have invaded the sleeping bag . Marvel at the white milkiness of the night sky – how the big dipper really is full of starry milk. I wonder if the Pleiades is the little dipper or that small constellation near Orion. I can’t remember; my vision blurry.

Awake in the night I think of water flows and allocations, weirs and dams upstream. I see the silhouettes of tree skeletons against the starry sky. I think of cotton.

My body on the earth, feels the strain, the effort to survive.

The eastern sky is lightening when I awake again. The stars above me are completely changed. The southern cross now high in the sky. I struggle to recall what I know about the axis of the stars. What lay north south after sunset now seems east west . I am totally confused.

I wake to the pied butcher bird song and sunlight.

There is deep sorrow in my bones that I seem to have absorbed from the land overnight ,that is blending with the missing of my father. There is unexpected grief. It’s not that it was an easy relationship- but he taught me this – how to see and read the world, the birds and rock and trees. I miss those conversations. In the year before he died we used to talk about the lakes and look up the level on the dams across NSW. When we first started Menindee was at 0.7% and now, despite the floods up north that should be filling it –  it’s at 18% . He would shake his head.

Over east this is all so far away, and cotton is better than synthetics isn’t it?

 I love the Barkka, having visited its banks in Wilcannia for more the 40 years. In the 2000’s I stepped across this mighty river that once supported river boats. I cried – there are no words that describe that feeling.

You see, I was born upstream . the first water I played in was from this system. On the Gwydir – in Kamilaroi country.

I feel so powerless – what can be done. I doubt that I should be living out here. But the spirts all say stay , yes ,yes, live lightly, live well.

There is a place on the highway, a slight rise and a layby. 30klm from Broken Hill. I must remember to come here and watch the stars; the horizon is huge. I pull over- there is a tree. I walk towards the tree and see the ground is littered with plastics, so many shapes and forms. At least I can collect the garbage and put in the roadside bin, that eases the sadness somewhat. I gather seeds from beneath that fruit laden Wilga tree- when I return home I scatter them in my garden.