In my life, I have lived many places, but the place of my heart has long been the state of Oregon. Especially the coast. Currently I live in a part of Oregon vulnerable to storms and high water.
A plucky group of forward-thinking people in our area trains volunteers to help first responders in emergencies. They also encourage residents to learn how to use hand-held radios to receive emergency messages.
I have taken their classes but find the little radio most useful for getting marine weather forecasts. Since I lived on a sailboat for six years, these marine forecasts are familiar. They also remind me how bad sea conditions can be just offshore from our cozy homes on land. Small Craft Advisories are common where the long Columbia River meets the Pacific at the Columbia Bar!
The historical novel
Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark
vividly describes what ships can face arriving at the Columbia Bar:
When the Tonquin arrived off the Northwest Coast and mouth of the Columbia River on March 22, 1811, it had left all tropical antics far in its wake. Here wind squalls from the northwest swept across the charcoal sea. Huge swells tossed the ship. Roaring white breakers smashed against the shoreline of this far edge of the North American continent, stretching away endlessly north and south in a misty gray-green band of impenetrable forest and rocky headlands. . . .
Whatever safety and shelter was offered by this wild coast was blocked by a four-mile-long sandbar across the Columbia's mouth. Still today one of the world's most dangerous navigational hazards, here the power of the largest river of the western continent, discharging an average of 265,000 cubic feet of water per second, collides head-on with the power of the world's largest ocean. The Pacific tides and swells entering the river's mouth fight against the outgoing river's discharge. This battle throws up ferociously steep mounds of water, up to twelve feet high, known as standing waves. They can literally stand a boat up on end. At the same time, incoming swells from the North Pacific, generated by powerful storms thousands of miles out at sea and thirty feet or more in height, tower over the shallows of the bar. Crashing down in a tumult of foam and spray further churned by the winds and tidal currents, these waves create what seems to be a giant cauldron where the earth's hydraulic forces converge.
Somewhere in this chaos of wind and wave and powerful tides the Seagoing party had to find the gap in the shallow sandbar. It was only through this single channel that the main current of the Columbia River exited the continent, and they could enter.
"The wind was blowing in heavy squalls, and the sea ran very high," wrote Franchière, about their arrival off the Columbia's mouth, adding that they could plainly see the breakers crashing from three miles off.
A small whaleboat with 5 men is inadvisably launched by Captain Thorn of the Tonquin to find the channel:
Alexander Ross watched from the rail with the others. The seas were so rough that by the time the whaleboat moved one hundred yards from the ship, he wrote, the onlookers at the rail frequently lost sight of it among the whitccapping swells. Mr. Fox's whaleboat soon became "utterly unmanageable." It turned sideways to the "foaming surges," spun around, then was flung up to a wave crest, before disappearing again into a deep trough. . . .
By noon two days after they'd arrived, March 24, the wind had dropped. Now Mr. Mumford, the second mate aboard the Tonquin, made another attempt at finding the channel across the bar. . . . They were approaching the bar but still two miles from shore when those in the longboat suddenly found themselves pulled into the ripping maelstrom of current and surf and wind and shallows for which the Columbia Bar was already infamous. Ross, at the oars, described "the terrific chain of breakers. . .rolling one after another in rapid succession" while a "fearful suction" pulled the longboat toward the bar. Before they had time to respond fully, the current had dragged the longboat into the bar's breakers, the crashing tons of water spinning them this way and that.
"[A]t this instant, Mr. Mumford, who was at the helm called out, 'Let us turn back, and pull for your lives; pull hard, or you are all dead men.'"
For twelve minutes, Ross wrote, the longboat hung in the balance, the men pulling with all their strength, but neither winning nor losing the battle against the current sucking them farther into the bar's breaking surf. Finally, "the boat obeyed the oars," he wrote. They managed to row themselves out of the imminent danger and to the relative safety of the heaving but open sea.
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In a more modern vein, Wikipedia summarizes the following facts about the Columbia Bar:
The Columbia River Bar is the portion of the Columbia River where the current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean, often as large, standing waves partially caused by the deposition of sediment as the river slows. These standing waves are usually mixed with ocean waves and wreak havoc with small (and not so small) vessels. To add to the treachery, conditions can change from calm and serene to life threatening breaking waves in as little as five minutes due to tide, wind direction and ocean swell direction. Since 1792 approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia River Bar. The nearby U.S. Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment is renowned for operating in some of the roughest sea conditions in the world and is also home to the National Motor Lifeboat School. It is the only school for rough weather and surf rescue operation in the United States and is respected internationally as a center of excellence for heavy boat operations.
As a practical tip, small craft are advised to cross the bar during times of incoming flood tide, staying toward the outside of the navigational channel to avoid the frequent large ships which move at 20 to 30 knots.
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I'm not sure if this "You Have to See This" video is still available,
but if so, it's, um, entertaining?
* * *
I was at the southern tip of South America, and there were no ravens. I saw no crows, either. This was latitude 55º S., the Antarctic equivalent of southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia. The natives of the Arctic are famous for their stories about Raven. So where were South America's trickster birds?
It turns out there are none. Every other continent around the globe has some member of the crow or raven family. Northern South America has a jay, which is a cousin of the Corvids. But ravens and crows have scarcely moved south of Mexico in the Americas.
The bird-watchers at Living Wild in South America explain that the Corvids probably had no reason to go far south – though that does not seem to stop most explorers from moving around the world, and it has not kept ravens out of Africa or Australia. The Living Wild photographers also mention the interesting caracara family, suggesting that these bold and common birds of South America may out-compete ravens for the omnivorous scavanger slot. Maybe so, but caracaras seem solemn, no-nonsense birds to me, more like eagles and hawks. The role of sassy entertainer is still open in southern South America, currently filled by smaller birds like the chucao.
Whatever the reason for their absence, I missed ravens in the bogs and tundras of southern Patagonia.
* * *
Have you ever been surprised by the absence of something you had always assumed would be there?
In his clever article "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?" David Quammen argues that the corvid family—which includes crows and ravens—may be too smart for its own good.
"For example," he writes, "they play a lot.
"Animal play is a reasonably common phenomenon, at least among certain mammals, especially in the young of these species. Play activities—by definition—are any that serve no immediate biological function, and which therefore do not directly improve the animal's prospects for survival and reproduction. The corvids, according to expert testimony, are irrepressibly playful. In fact, they show the most complex play known in birds. Ravens play toss with themselves in the air, dropping and catching again a small twig. They lie on their backs and juggle objects (in one recorded case, a rubber ball) between beak and feet. They jostle each other sociably in a version of 'king of the mountain' with no real territorial stakes. Crows are equally frivolous. They play a brand of rugby, wherein one crow picks up a white pebble or a bit of shell and flies from tree to tree, taking a friendly bashing from its buddies until it drops the token. And they have a comedy-acrobatic routine: allowing themselves to tip backward dizzily from a wire perch, holding a loose grip so as to hang upside-down, spreading out both wings, then daringly letting go with one foot; finally, switching feet to let go with the other. Such shameless hot-dogging is usually performed for a small audience of other crows.
"There is also an element of the practical jokester. Of the Indian house crow, Wilmore says: '. . . this Crow has a sense of humor, and revels in the discomfort caused by its playful tweaking at the tails of other birds, and at the ears of sleeping cows and dogs; it also pecks the toes of flying foxes as they hang sleeping in their roosts.' This crow is a laff riot. Another of Wilmore's favorite species amuses itself, she says, by 'dropping down on sleeping rabbits and rapping them over the skull or settling on drowsy cattle and startling them.' What we have here is actually a distinct subcategory of playfulness known, where I come from at least, as Cruisin' For a Bruisin'."
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Do you have a favorite story about animal play?
pp. 33-34 of "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?"
in Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature
by David Quammen (NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1985)
The raven sang
two or three times a sweet melody.
Then she saw us.
She saw me, anyway, and stopped.
We were two artists, moving into the guest house for a two-week residency at Hubbell Trading Post. I heard unfamiliar birdsong and stepped outside to see who it was. A large raven was perched on a wooden electric pole.
It was 5 p.m. in late September, that hour before real dusk when ravens fly in ones and twos all in the same direction, calling. The raven looked down at me.
"Rwork," she said and flew west. But I was sure I had heard something else first.
That raven sang
two or three times a true melody.
I wanted to hear it again.
The same raven (or one like her) often perched on that pole near dusk during our residency. I listened as often as I could but only heard the usual range of raven evening talk, which is interesting in its own right.
Scientists have recorded over 80 distinct sounds made by ravens, though they currently believe an individual raven may use only about 20 of these on a regular basis. Sort of like I only use about 5,000 of maybe 100,000 words of common English.
Ravens have been credited with:
rrronk cluck rattle whine-thunk
caw squawk (low) honk (very rapid) rap-rap-rap
coo (long rasping) caw (nasal) honk cowp-cowp-cowp-uk
kruk (low, soft, murmur/ oo-oo (soft upward inflected) cheow
krrk whisper) km and mm knock (rapid) caulk-caulk-caulk-caulk
nuk cark pruk growl
Eighty distinct sounds—plus unexpected silence. Ravens seldom speak during the breeding season until the babies hatch, and they do not call out when a captive raven is set free.
Individual ravens are known to imitate: Other birds, a train whistle, radio static, a motorcycle being revved, urinals flushing, dogs barking (near and far away) and, in the Olympic National Forest, the sound of avalanche control explosions: "One – two – three – beccccchh." But the closest I found to music in the literature was a story by Jane Kilham, wife and colleague of corvid scientist Lawrence Kilham. She heard wild ravens make sounds "similar to spring water gurgling through a tube, so musical that she found it fascinating to listen to." Perhaps there was hope for me yet.
Then, one night, I saw a PBS Nova program called "A Murder of Crows." The narrator noted that, like ravens, crows have many words, such as different cries for cat, human, and hawk, with different levels of urgency for each. They also have what the narrator called two dialects—one familiar to us and raucous, the other for private family moments which is melodic and sweet. They played 13 seconds of crows murmuring in a nest near the University of Washington, and my heart jumped. Was I getting closer to hearing that music again?
Catherine Feher-Elston tells of a bird she rehabilitated who enjoyed a music box that played "the Neapolitan classic Torno a Sorrento." She lived in northern Arizona for a while, so maybe I had heard her rehabilitated bird at Hubbell, singing an Italian popular tune. But no—Feher-Elston's bird was also a crow. I want to respect differences between these two highly-intelligent species. Because, even within each group, there are wide variations, especially in vocabulary.
Lawrence Kilham quotes a 1922 observer as saying, "Nearly every raven I met has some note that is distinctive." The Yale team of Marzluff and Angell write that raven literature reports "many unique calls with distinct meanings." And Bernd Heinrich, well-respected author of Mind of the Raven, says, "We know infinitely less about vocal communication in ravens than. . .about the call of a frog, a cricket, or the zebra finch. . . . The more complex and specific a communication system becomes, the more random-sounding and arbitrary it will appear." All of which surely allows for the possibility of music, even in a gravel-voiced songbird, right?
Distinctive notes. Unique calls. "Unique" means one time only. So why do I ask for this raven gift again? To confirm what I know to be true?
As Craig Comstock, a raven-watcher in Maine said, "I understand the need for the scientific method, but there are times when nature speaks just once, and it is a loss not to listen."
I heard a raven
sing melody sweet and true
and I treasure it.
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Have you had a unique experience you would like to share?
With gratitude to the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
Artist-in-Residence Program, Ganado, Arizona.
Catherine Feher-Elston, personal communication.
Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
(NY: Cliff Street Books, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999)
Lawrence Kilham, The American Crow and the Common Raven
(College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1989)
John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005)
PBS A Murder of Crows, video.pbs.org/video/1621910826
aired 24 October 2010
In her book Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen (aka the Baroness Karen Blixen) writes about freedom in an early section of "The Shooting Accident" chapter:
"People who dream when they sleep at night, know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will. The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of. . . . All the time the feeling of immense freedom is surrounding him and running through him like air and light, an unearthly bliss. He is a privileged person, the one who has got nothing to do, but for whose enrichment and pleasure all things are brought together. . . .
"The thing which in the waking world comes nearest to a dream is night in a big town, where nobody knows one, or the African night. There too is infinite freedom: it is there that things are going on, destinies are made round you, there is activity to all sides, and it is none of your concern.”
p. 87, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
(NY: Random House, Vintage Books, 1938, 1972)
"Things are going on, destinies are made round you,
there is activity to all sides, and it is none of your concern."
How do you feel about this idea of freedom?
Do you have any thoughts about Dinesen's idea that the artist is someone
"who has no will, who is free of will"?
PS Some of the comments on this blog refer to a September post about floating in an eddy. This essay has been removed pending its publication elsewhere.
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!