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The trees were our gods where I grew up. At the bottom of our garden there were no heavens, no judgment from above, just a dark canopy of high and mischievous lime and beech. They were the primeval narrator of spring, summer, autumn and winter. They were our theatre and our audience in a place where no one watched you, not God, not even your parents, no one except the trees.
It was customary for the trees to throw things down to earth for their amusement, just to see what we would do with them. Sometimes it would be a broken, blue speckled blackbird egg, other times it would be a large moss-covered branch, sometimes it would be a newly hatched chick, killed the moment it hit the ground. A dead fledgling jay was thrown once, whose electric blue feathers I coveted until my parents told me it was time to bury it. It was attracting flies and the maggots would be swift to follow.
There weren’t pet breeders like there are today – whose waiting lists, in the UK, have gone up on average from 100 to 400 since lockdown. Sure, you could get a pedigree Labrador or Golden Retriever if you were chichi. But more often than not, where I grew up, surrounded by farms and beyond that, moors, you got a sheepdog, a horse (if you were lucky), a cat (if you weren’t), or a mongrel being given away for free from a litter of unwanted pups. I wouldn’t get my mongrel for another year or two. So, during a petless summer holiday the gods threw me a bone.
The trees threw down a baby raven.
The high lime and beech boughs were thick with rook nests. At least, we thought they were rook’s nests, which was why, initially, we thought this fallen raven chick was a rook. Whatever it was, we knew to leave it alone. If we touched it its parents would smell us on it and might not take it back. Animals know the smell of humans and dread it. So I watched from the old glass in our front door. I watched from the window of our bathroom. I looked on from any window I could see the drive to check on the chick’s progress, or lack of it. And while I watched I wondered how its parents would even get it back up into the roost if they were to take it back? The chick couldn’t fly. Only flap and hobble about helplessly. But patiently, we waited. We watched it hop up and down the drive, as the trees watched us, waiting to see what we would do.
“Ignore it,” the gods rattled. “Turn your back on it. Let nature fix this with its heavy hand.”
Humouring the trees, we had to leave it for a night or two, at least give its parents a chance to come and retrieve it. The next morning when I looked out, the chick had gone. Staring down the empty drive that lead out on to the open road I prayed to the dark canopy that it hadn’t hopped out into the winding country lanes. A chick wouldn’t last a second out there; it would join the sweet smell of decay that haunts summer verges in the country.
I went out searching the garden, which back then had a decrepit, ivy-covered ammunition hut where the old boys of the village had sat and polished their rifles and played cards and drunk homebrewed cider in WW2. (Due to pretty extreme financial difficulties we were forced to sell the house a few years later. Among many refurbishments carried out to make the house less eccentric, such as repainting it cream from the dusty red like the iron-rich clay it was built on – my mother inspired to paint it that colour by a Jimi Hendrix song – the people who bought it from us knocked the old ammunition hut down, for which I hope the ground hexed them). There was a rustling from behind the ammunition hut. I went around the other side, preparing myself for the disappointment of a squirrel, or a blackbird, but there it was, the little raven chick. Its hopeless hobbling was becoming unbearable to watch. And it saw me, watching. We stood watching each other for a few moments. And in those moments I became determined to look after it.
After sprinting back to the house, I put forward my case: we’d been waiting all day and all night and its parents still hadn’t come. They were probably just looking down on the chick from their roost. The trees creaking in their ears, “Leave your child. Leave it down there. Let the foxes fix this mistake.”
Of course, my parents knew this was the easier option, to leave the chick for the foxes. But my dad is the sort of man who will avoid a bumblebee while driving if it’s safe to do so. And my mother’s much the same. So, it was agreed. We would wait until dusk, and if its parents still hadn’t come to the rescue, if the trees persuaded them to abandon their chick to the earth for entertainment, I was allowed to take it in.
We still had an old rabbit hutch from a very scratchy, aggressive and sickly rabbit that I had loved unconditionally and with complete disregard for my own safety. He’d died a few years before (an event that I’m sure was, if not a cause for jubilation for my parents, a cause for quiet celebration). So I prepared the hutch for the chick, I covered it in dried leaves, bits of twig, dried grass, moss, my own hair, everything I could find to make the it feel comfortable and at home.
Dusk came down thick in the West Country, especially in the summer: lilac then blue then black. The chick was still shuffling about on the drive, looking pitiful. There was no sign of its parents and it was wailing now too, only increasing the likelihood a fox would come – the neighbour’s cats were too fat and lazy. It was wild beneath the impression of “English countryside”, and the cats knew they were no match for what lived out there. For whatever bit the heads off all my pet mice leaving only their bodies. The cats stayed where they were princes, on their porches playing with mice and flies. But foxes, stoats, ferrets, and big fucking rats too, they would have the chick in a pounce.
I picked it up – pre-pandemic, I had no fear of diseases from animals. I had no fear of diseases. I’d caught a lot of chickens in my time and birds and bats frequently flew into our house, and it was always my job to catch them because I could do it so it didn’t hurt their wings. So catching a raven chick was not a big deal. You just have to make sure you grab the wings so it doesn’t hurt itself. Whisper, “It’s okay. It’s okay. You’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you. You’re safe.” Whisper louder than the trees that tell it to fear you. They still pant and blink but you can feel them calming with your reassurances.
Placing it carefully in the hutch, making sure it looked as comfortable as possible, I filled a little tray of water. It also needed to eat, so I went and looked under logs and rocks and stones and pots and collected a feast of bugs for my new raven chick. I put a slug on the edge of the open hutch, which after a moment’s inspection it ate. Then it was easy: I put my hand in the shape of a beak, and passed it another slug. After a couple of days, my parents pointed out this was not a sustainable means of feeding the chick. Who, thinking it was a rook, I had imaginatively named Rookie. We investigate: what do rooks eat? Pretty much anything, we discover. They like meat.
The trees smile. Good, very good. Take him in. Give him your heart to eat.
We were a largely vegetarian household, save for the monthly Sunday chicken. But the next time we went to the supermarket we were buying mince. I had to feed Rookie regularly and my parents were right, it was a struggle to find enough bugs, and birdseed certainly wasn’t enough to sustain it. I had no disgust in picking up a slug, no guilt as I would now in catching a bug, a beetle and feeding it to it with my hand-beak. But I did have to relent and supplement this with a little mince, which was the only thing that did make me grimace when I fed him.
Soon the chick and I had a bond. And after a few weeks, he was starting to get the hang of flying. He would fly from my arm and on to the ground. And then, the most magic bit was, he flew back again. He was getting big, and I knew that before long, if all went well, one day he would just fly away. But he didn’t. He flew to the ground and came back. It was a humbling feeling to have that bird’s trust and I wouldn’t have done anything to break it. I cared for him with all my heart while trees watched on and laughed.
“Maybe he will never leave you.”
Rookie had started pecking around on the ground, looking for his own food, but still relied on my slugs and the occasional bit of minced meat. He was able to fly further and further. Soon I found Rookie could fly from my arm all the way to the other side of the garden. But he would still come back to me, with my arm outstretched for it.
To get Rookie out of the hutch I just held out my wrist and on he hopped. My dad, who had been watching this from the kitchen window one afternoon, came out filming Rookie flying away and back again, away and back again: everyone was quite surprised at the bond we had created. Everyone was surprised except me. I grew up an only child in a village where there weren’t many children, not many I spent much time with. My time was spent with animals. With toads and frogs and butterflies and bats and birds. I was an animal. The woods next-door weren’t ours, but they were only a ditch-jump away and nothing was going to stop me spending my days in there and treating them as if they were my own. I climbed the trees that watched me. I ate all manner of poisonous things – one of my favourites were baby acorns in the farmer’s field next-door. I only found out in my twenties that they’re poisonous. I drank the nectar from honeysuckle.
I didn’t feel the separation.
But then I felt the break.
That day was the same as every other day, as those days always are. Another sunny day in the eternity of summer holidays. I was proud of how far Rookie could fly now, encouraged that he wasn’t totally reliant on me for food any more. Relived that if there were a daytime fox or a chancing cat or a fucking big rat he could lift himself above the earth from which he had fallen and cackle at his would-be killer. Most of all I was honoured that he kept coming back to me. If I held my arm out long enough he would fly back to it. I knew not to pet him too much, so I’d just let him sit there as I held out my arm, mimicking the trees that had thrown him down. I was a god for a time.
You can feel when a bird’s about to take off. Rookie would push down a little on my skin with his feet, then raise his wings, and then he would push harder and pull down his wings and then he would leave me with just one beat. As always, I watched as he flew over towards the edge of our garden that rolled into the hill and down to the neighbour’s epic field, the pond there, the willows, the ducks. I watched as he didn’t stop at our hedge. I watched as he flew up and over it. I watched as he flew out over the field. I watched until I couldn’t make Rookie out in the bright sunlight anymore.
I stood there with my arm out waiting for his return. I stood like a tree waiting for him to come back to me, as the gods chuckled in the breeze. “This feeling of abandonment,” they whispered, “this is our gift to you. Embrace it. It will come again and next time, you will not be a stranger to it.”
The writer Percivel Everett had a similar experience to mine when a baby crow fell from a nest on his ranch outside Los Angeles. Everett took the crow in, named it “Jim Crow”, and raised it for a couple of years. “I kept wanting him to fly away and have a crow’s life, and he finally did when I wasn’t there,” he told Creative Capitol. “Crows are really monogamous. He wouldn’t let my dogs come near me, or anyone come near me. He would just scream at them if they did. As much as I loved him, I would never have another crow for a relationship – it was too intense.”
Maybe I was lucky to have such an independent raven. Mozart’s pet starling stayed with him until its death on June 4th 1787, and Mozart was devastated by it, so devastated he held a funeral ceremony. “He arranged a funeral procession, in which everyone who could sing had to join in, heavily veiled – made a sort of requiem, epitaph in verse,” writes the contemporary historian von Nissan.
Here rests a bird called Starling,
A foolish little Darling.
He was still in his prime
When he ran out of time,
And my sweet little friend
Came to a bitter end,
Creating a terrible smart
Deep in my heart.
Gentle Reader! Shed a tear,
For he was dear,
Sometimes a bit too jolly
And, at times, quite folly,
I bet he is now up on high
Praising my friendship to the sky,
Which I render
For when he took his sudden leave,
Which brought to me such grief,
He was not thinking of the man
Who writes and rhymes as no one can.
—Mozart’s funeral poem for his starling
There are reports that Virgil, in what can only be described as either a test of the limits of human compassion or suspension of disbelief, reportedly adopted a housefly. When the fly died, he forked out an exorbitant amount ($2.6 million in today’s money) for its funeral and burial.
I suppose I was lucky to be left this way rather than another.
The origin of Life is chaos, but sometimes Life finds ways of making you believe there is an intelligent organization to it, or at the very least synchronicity, meaningful coincidence. As I write this piece I take a break and go for a run (a new, post-lockdown activity). Turning it over in my mind, I think about Rookie and how, in spite of the risks of doing a bad job, I did a good job by him. I think, I would do the same again, if I had to.
I turn the corner on the road leading home and notice that there’s a black shape ahead, sprawled out on the dusty lane, gleaming in the midday sun. I’m very short-sighted and it takes me a while to work out what it is: it’s a fledgling raven. Its wings are splayed out either side, and it’s not moving. What’s immediately evident from its position is that it’s in pain. I leave the track and run slowly on the grass verge beside it. I stop when I’m close and stare in disbelief. It’s panting and I’m concerned about the heat. There’s a woods on the other side of the lane and I wish it would hop in there, where the trees will shade it. But it stays in the hot sun, preening one of its outstretched wings repeatedly. I look up at the oak trees. This raven, this new raven, was it thrown or did it jump?
“Is it hurt?” a large old man calls over to me as he bounds his big legs down the hill.
“I think so. It looks like its wing.”
“Looks like he’s a bit knocked out, doesn’t it? Oh!” he exclaims, “I hate to see any animal suffering.”
“So do I… I hope it’s just a bit stunned, I don’t know, but I wish it would go in the woods where there’s some shade.”
I barely take my eyes off the raven as I speak to the man, watching it panting. From up the top of the hill, two joggers are running straight towards it. They don’t decide to go in single file so as not to scare it, they just keep running in tandem towards it until the fledgling is forced to hop out the way. It doesn’t go for the woods but on to the grass a few feet away from me.
“It’s funny,” I mutter, almost to myself, “I’m just writing about a raven I looked after once…”
“Is it a raven?”
“It’s a rook or a raven – I can’t tell from here and I don’t want to get too close.”
“Why don’t you pick it up and take it into the woods?”
“It’s best not to touch it. I could try and shoo it towards the woods but I don’t want to scare it.”
“I’d think it’s better to pick it up and take it over.”
I shake my head.
“Maybe we should call the ranger,” the old man says.
I stand watching the bird, willing it to fly, but it just stays there in the midday sun, one wing splayed out, preening it.
“Have you got a phone? Can you call the ranger?” I ask. “I thought it might be stunned but … it looks like something’s wrong with that wing it keeps preening.”
The old man immediately gets on the phone, and gets through so quickly he must have the rangers’ number in his address book. “Hello? Yes, hello. There’s a raven in great distress, I’m wondering if you can do something about it? Can you call the RSPB?”
With some difficulty he describes our location and is then put on hold while I stand guard against predator, sadist or another careless jogger. To get to the raven, they have to come through me. We watch over the fledgling for several minutes, waiting. It hobbles about a little, but mostly tends to its wing. I stare at the bird and question whether, if it came down to it, I had it in me to look after a raven again. I do, but to my disappointment, the difference is I no longer want to.
After about fifteen minutes, without warning and with the old man still on the line, the fledgling takes a few clumsy flaps and flies up into an oak tree just above our heads. The old man calls up to the raven, “Oh my goodness! Are you alright up there, darling?”
Thank fuck, I think, waving my goodbyes as the old man shouts happily down the line, “He’s okay! He’s alright! He’s flown up into the tree! … Are you there?”
That same night, the copse of trees opposite our flat that acts as a roost for a hundred-odd ravens suddenly comes alive. I don’t usually pay them any mind. But something’s spooked the birds and their black bodies – huge above us under their full wingspan, almost buzzard size – cackle and caw and bark and scream and wheel around and above our building for half an hour or so. It’s an awesome spectacle, and as I watch the ravens fly from the trees and over the buildings and back again, I think of all the abandonments that followed my first.
“Look at them all,” the gods chant above the racket. “They never left you.”