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Seeing the Raven

Seeing the Raven

Peter M. Leschak
Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Seeing the Raven
    Book Description:

    Blending contemporary science and keen firsthand observation, Leschak's narrative encompasses a wide range of topics and experiences-fly fishing and wildland firefighting, backyard astronomy and ecology, chain saws and ice skates, turtles and timberwolves. Its moments of pathos and joy unfold against the forbidding and beautiful landscape of northeastern Minnesota, as the author confronts questions that transcend the particulars of his experience. At once humorous and philosophical, rich with anecdotes and allusions, this is a book about death and renewal and a search for meaning along nature's myriad byways.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8585-1
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Author’s Note
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-6)

    My name is Windigo, and I am a hunter. I roam the woods alone like a wolf cast from the pack. I relish bitter January nights, when the moon rides high and snow glitters like the starscape overhead. On such nights I own the dark forest and frozen rivers. I’m emperor of the deer in their yards, chief of the bears in their dens. I’m lord of the fish under the ice and ruler of the beaver in its lodge. My authority is unchallenged because no one knows it exists. I consider the world my realm, and there are no...

  6. 1 Wolf Moon
    (pp. 7-14)

    It’s astonishing that you can live thirty-some years on this planet and hear a common sound for the first time. That’s what I thought when I heard the snow. How many times had I been amidst windblown flakes? A thoushand? At least. And yet I’d never listened to them.

    I was standing on Secret Lake in northeastern Minnesota. A crescent moon was low in the west, seen white and cold through January air. A gusty southwest wind had the sky frothing and seething in transparent celestial surf, and the stars blinked rapidly in the tumult. A pale greenish glow behind...

  7. 2 In the Windows’ Den
    (pp. 15-22)

    It’s easy,of course,to be enamored of wolves, and it seems only natural to be fascinated by their song. They’re big, furry animals akin to our beloved dogs, and they support a rich body of literature seasoned with romance and myth. I heard wolves in the pages of Jack London and Robert Service long before I actually roamed these woods.

    It’s not so easy to love spiders. My affection is an acquired taste.

    I once saw a spider on my left ski tip. I noticed it as I was tucking in to glide down a hill. It was a medium sized...

  8. 3 Confessions of a Predator
    (pp. 23-28)

    Although spiders may feel secure in my presence, I have killed other creatures. I’m a predator, and by extension so is anyone who eats meat. But unlike many who consume far more flesh than I—shrink-wrapped and dated—I often face the death of the animals I eat. One late autumn afternoon a couple of years ago was typical.

    The Reverend was scrambling in the underbrush, inflamed and snorting. He’d just flushed our quarry. I heard the grouse blast out of the duff—a furious hammering of wings like a burst of machine-gun fire.

    I flinched, then froze, the .410...

  9. 4 When Eagles Scream
    (pp. 29-38)

    I'm not the only killer around. In fact, I used to know a guy who was called “Killer.” It was a joke, like calling a bald man Curly or a white dog Blackie. His demeanor was that of a quiet village priest, as gentle as a New Age prophet. He tended his tomato plants as if they had souls,as if God had personally charged him with the solemn responsibility. But it was a double irony, because “Killer” had really killed. It was a few years back, in a place he called “Vietgone.”

    “It was over the rim of the world,”...

  10. 5 Tires Don’t Feed
    (pp. 39-46)

    It’s up to us to hone such distinctions—between a killer and a murderer, between the way things are and the way we feel things should be. Nature, that is, everything besides us and what we create, has little use for our quibbling. You can certainly argue that we are a part of Nature, and may even temporarily convince yourself, but in our heart of hearts we really don’t believe it. As a species, we humans most often view ourselves as a collective deus ex machina, either foisted on, or bequeathed to the world—depending upon your philosophy or your...

  11. 6 An Apocalypse of Mayflies
    (pp. 47-54)

    But gloom is too easy, and clouds the vision. The Sunday paper, for all its ill wind, also includes Shoe and the brash weirdos of “The Far Side.” Properly crumpled it makes an excellent lighter for cedar kindling, quickly inducing a stout draft in the chimney. It’s also recyclable.

    So are all life forms. Death cycles back into the food chain, both directly and indirectly, and is eventually indistinguishable from birth. Carcasses are nourishment—for soil, plants, other creatures—and as soon as mother turtle was dead she initiated a new career.

    Endings and beginnings fit a wave pattern—crest...

  12. 7 The Red and the Scat
    (pp. 55-62)

    The trouble is, we’re not always sure what we see, or why we see it. Pam saw two black bears wearing bright red collars tumble out of a maple tree. She said that I ambled over to talk to them, but they removed their heads and became belligerent. This happened right outside our bedroom window, but I’m a bit fuzzy on the details because, regrettably, I wasn’t actuallyinPam’s dream. Such bears would be sensational—even without red collars—but in the realm of backwoods visions they’d by no means be unique. After a decade and a half of...

  13. 8 A Chorus of Geese
    (pp. 63-66)

    It’s comforting to believe that nearly everything has meaning. From nightmares to the glance of a raven, all symbolize something, and even if that symbol has meaning only to you, does that make it any less significant? Thinking is connecting, and we have the power to weave images into magic carpets of perception.

    One day it was ten degrees below zero as I snowshoed across a remote northern Minnesota lake, thinking about geese. I could hear their voices in my head.

    The train of thought and circumstance that led from a January ice sheet to the calls of Canada geese...

  14. 9 Chickadee Bob
    (pp. 67-72)

    Change, of course, can also be traumatic. Bob, for instance, lost his tail. It was on a November fourth. I remember because I was helping our friend Rastus secure his boat for the winter. It got down to nine degrees that morning, and there was a rim of ice around the lake. In two weeks there would be one great sheet, and the lake would be sealed for five months.

    We dragged the sixteen-foot Lund far up onto the shore, flipped it over, and chained it to a birch. It was sad duty. The aluminum hull was crusted with frost,...

  15. 10 An Owl’s Stare
    (pp. 73-78)

    when it’s extremely cold—say, forty below—we think more about the birds. At least once or twice each winter Pam wonders aloud how sparrows and chickadees survive our dim season. It adds dimension to the termwarm-bloodedto imagine their tiny, staccato hearts versus a continent-sized polar air mass. When I see a grosbeak perched on a bare branch, its feathers fluffed up against relentless, killing cold, I’m genuinely appreciative of our warm and solid house—though I feel somewhat wimpy to be so safe and cozy while songbirds take on winter face to face.

    Our lair is hewn...

  16. 11 The Top Secret Starlight Brain
    (pp. 79-88)

    Close to a midnight one late November I was at my desk, in front of the same window the great gray owl had peered into. When I’d last checked the thermometer it was at zero; the forecast was ten degrees below. When it’s that cold the atmosphere is often stable, the sky vivid. I’ve nurtured a passion for astronomy since youth, and before bed I intended to walk down to Secret Lake—as I do every clear night—and survey the stars, maybe see the northern lights.

    Meanwhile, I was at my desk, reading. The lamp spilled a pool of...

  17. 12 Forest Galactica
    (pp. 89-92)

    The stars would be less potent if not for the dark skies of our backwoods nights. Darkness is a natural resource generally unavailable to urban dwellers, and often overlooked as one of the prime attractions of rural life.

    During the past several years I’ve noticed that some locales in our neighborhood are enhanced by nightfall, more bewitching at midnight than they are at noon. One such is the West Sturgeon Forest Road. We use it as a shortcut between our cabin and Beatrice Lake. The narrow track winds through hills full-fledged with pine and birch. Although bumpy and sometimes rutted,...

  18. 13 Insecurity Light
    (pp. 93-98)

    I’m jealous of the nighttime purity that allows me to imagine confusion between stars and fireflies, so one of these nights I’m going to load my .410 shotgun and blow away a streetlight. It’ll probably be in January, when the glaring bulb is shedding harsh, third-degree illumination on falling snow. I picture the hit going down at two or three A.M. when absolutely no one is around.

    Of course, there’s never anyone “around” that light to begin with. For half a century the remote intersection was dark, no one deeming it necessary to light up the aspen grove and the...

  19. 14 Dancing Ghosts
    (pp. 99-106)

    Silence is power. A shout or a shot will turn your head, force a reaction, but loudness is superficial—an obvious manifestation that’s readily deciphered. Silence, however—the absence of vibration—is mysterious. We’re drawn to quiet things, deliberately plumbing the frequencies of stillness. We’re compelled to listen to whispers, and silence is strong.

    One reason mankind has always been fascinated by the night sky is that there’s light, movement, and pattern, but no sound. Sky is where science and religion meet, each speaking for voiceless stars. The passion to know, to believe, is often ignited by the strangeness of...

  20. 15 The Viridian Gate
    (pp. 107-114)

    Ghosts do more than dance, and they aren’t restricted to nocturnal visits. I once contemplated 30,000 of them in the grand luminosity of a summer sunset mirrored in Secret Lake.

    When The Reverend and I first arrived at the shore that evening, we saw the island was back. It was nestled against our dock, pinned by a gentle southeasterly breeze. I hadn’t seen it for a month.

    The island is roughly seven feet on a side and about two-and-a-half feet thick. It’s a durable mat of muskeg, supporting a lush verdure of labrador tea, leatherleaf, pitcher plants, cranberry vines, and...

  21. 16 The New Moon of the Deep Snow
    (pp. 115-128)

    The Reverend isn’t fond of high summer or deep winter. In July he hunkers under the back porch, viciously nipping at horseflies. In January he curls into a furry lump on the kitchen rug, pointedly ignoring me as I slip on boots and parka, grimly aware that I may order him outdoors as partner to whatever idiotic human mission I may have in mind. The Rev seems happiest in spring and fall, when temperatures are moderate and most of his insect tormentors are slow, dead, or unborn.

    For me, however, the delicious extremes of the northern temperate zone are one...

  22. 17 The Same Crooked Worm
    (pp. 129-134)

    At certain times and places on the trek through space-time, our existence as living organisms on a frequently difficult planet seems wretched. Early passings such as Jeff’s, when viewed in the abstract (another wondrous talent of the human mind) can be as appealing as fresh air. While most don’t end their lives with suicide, it’s often the thought that counts, and one of the roles of an artist is to remind us of alternatives. A masterpiece—in whatever medium—leads us to the edge of life before steering us away from the precipice and back, figuratively, into Harold’s sauna on...

  23. 18 First Ice
    (pp. 135-140)

    Such moments of artistic sublimity are rare, and usually whatever happiness and enlightenment we enjoy must be gleaned from the everyday world. It’s axiomatic that the more delight we can find in the common, the livelier we’re bound to be. In northern Minnesota there’s nothing more common than ice, with the exception of mosquitoes, and I’ve encountered little happiness in the realm of the skeeters.

    But ice! Now there’s a medium for gladness, particularly the ice of early winter. As Thoreau wrote, “The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent.”

    A couple of Novembers ago...

  24. 19 Making Ice
    (pp. 141-150)

    Play is only one facet of the ice sheet. It’s also a renewable resource that can be harvested like timber—with chain saws. The first time I “made ice” it was the third week in January, and the temperature was zero degrees Fahrenheit.

    “It’s a perfect day for making ice,” said Dugan, sniffing the air. “Not too cold, not too warm.”

    Dugan and his family need a lot of ice. Their cabin is on an island, and nothing comes easily except solitude. There’s no electricity available to power the basic appliances that even most rural folks take for granted. And...

  25. 20 Chain Saw Rhapsody
    (pp. 151-164)

    A chief pleasure of work is developing a friendship with tools. As allies in our work—in our lifeblood—well-used tools seem almost animate, and I know people who take the loss or destruction of a tool as hard as the loss of a pet, or even a relative.

    When I was a freelance photographer, my trusty old Pentax Spotmatic was as dear as a dog, and cared for all out of proportion to its actual monetary value. Under no circumstances would I loan it out, and when it was hanging around my neck it was as much amulet or...

  26. 21 Cold Comfort
    (pp. 165-174)

    The answer is: rhubarb. I’ll ask the question later. First, consider corn. An old Penobscot myth reveals that corn was derived from the corpse of the First Mother, who, when starvation threatened the people, had herself slain by her husband and dragged across a field by her sons “until all my flesh has been torn from my body.” According toAmerican Indian Myths and Legends,this gruesome process seeded the first corn crop: “And they partook of First Mother’s flesh and found it sweet beyond words. Following her instructions, they did not eat all, but put many kernels back into...

  27. 22 Trickster Tales
    (pp. 175-188)

    It’s wise to be mindful of the laws of Nature. Duke and Sandy weren’t. Of course, Sandy is a golden retriever, and she wasn’t driving the truck, so most of the blame lies with Duke. This is how I heard the tale:

    The highway was slippery when they pulled out of a congenial roadside nest called the Viking Bar. Duke probably reminded himself to be careful and then forgot. On the way to Togo (“Where the asphalt ends and The North begins”) competing traffic is not a problem, and Duke was mesmerized by the lonely sheen of his headlights on...

  28. 23 Cry of the Loon
    (pp. 189-198)

    I opened this book with stark images of an entity called Windigo and a personal fantasy of dying in the snow with ravens as funeral directors. These images derived from a vision I experienced several years ago on a moonlit winter night. I call it a vision because it wasn’t a dream. I was awake and alert and the images simply materialized in my consciousness—forcefully.

    This fantasy recently broke into life; not for me, but for a man I never encountered until I saw him dead in the snow.

    I’m a member of our local volunteer fire department, a...

  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 199-199)