What Is The Raven?

Another in our series of notable quotations. I first came across Richard Nelson’s books while living in Alaska. This quotation is interesting from the perspective of anthropology, as well as for learning the skills of another culture which is common in bushcraft. Different cultures don’t just do some things differently – often they see and experience the world differently. As a result of interacting with them, belief systems can be challenged, enhanced and expanded.

“I stood beneath the tall timber and watched a raven fly above me, vanishing and reappearing as it passed behind the treetops. And I wondered what, or who, it really was. Certainty is for those who have learned and believed only one truth. Where I came from, the raven is just a bird – an interesting and beautiful one perhaps, even an intelligent one – but it is a bird, and that is all. But where I am now, the raven is many other things first, its form and existence as a bird almost the least significant of its qualities. It is a person and a power, God in a clown’s suit, incarnation of a once-omnipotent spirit. The raven sees, hears, understands, reveals… determines.

What is the raven? Bird-watchers and biologists know. Koyukon elders and their children who listen know. But those like me, who have heard and accepted them both, are left to watch and wonder. The raven tucked a wing and went topsy-turvy in the sky, then flew away toward the river, its resonating croaks pouring down into the forest. I turned awkwardly away, almost fearing a question: Was it laughing?”

– Richard K. Nelson, from the epilogue of Make Prayers To The Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest

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