The rain stopped. The cloud came down and sat over the land like a guilty conscience. We parked at the beach and ate our picnic off the dashboard whilst consulting the road atlas as to our next move.
“I want to go somewhere we can see something,” was Cee’s primary request.
I looked up. Strictly speaking we did have a sea view. Beyond the windscreen it was as though someone had drawn down an opaque grey blind cutting off the cove and sky not much beyond the breakerline.
I looked down at the map. “How do you feel about a little meander across the countryside? There’s somewhere we could go that I think you might like.”
It’s not a long way as the corvid flies from Maenporth to Gunwalloe Church Cove. But as the tourist drives (or local, for that matter) there’s a considerable amount of wiggling about on country lanes in order to circumnavigate the various farms and fields and river creeks, and a ring-fenced naval airbase through lowering then lifting then looming cloud and mist and general damp. Mawnan Smith, Lamanva, Gweek, Culdrose, Berepper, Halzephron: a catalogue of North Helford polysyllables made for a more rewarding drive than the local climate.
Up on the lump of cliff between Jangye-ryn and Church Cove the grasses were beaded with cloud droplets. Coltsfoot flowers were everywhere: the brightest things we’d seen all day. We watched a black bird fly past, heavy of bill and sleek of wing. He honked. A raven! I got wet knees kneeling to try and photograph the coltsfoot. We both got muddy trousers descending the so-called path from the cliff down behind the bell tower to Gunwalloe church, which is separated from the beach at Church Cove only by a wall. A sign on the door asks that visitors please keep it closed to stop the birds coming in. The pillars down the nave were green with lichen on the seaward side. There was sand on the chancel floor, near colourless glass in the fretted windows.
Back out on the shore we saw the raven again. The combination of church and sea reminded me of Noah sending out a raven to scout for land after forty days afloat in the ark. As the raven never came back he sent out a dove who brought back a sprig of vegetation shortly before the ark itself ran aground on Mount Ararat. This always appeared to me to be better proof of the raven’s brains than its ungodliness. They are something of a totem bird for Cee and I, punctuating our excursions like a validation or a luck motif. Cee had never seen one in the wild until the time we were hunkered down in the crook of the weather shelter at the summit of Helvellyn, watching the weather move round the whole of the Lake District below us while we ate our sandwiches. Then two conversing on a wire fence near Porth Joke, hooting alternately at each other. Five black acrobats entertaining us at Highveer Point as we looked along the North Devon coast to Lundy’s shadow on the skyline.
Given the choice, I would never change a raven for a dove. I like them. They are beautiful birds, the largest and most intelligent of the clever corvid family, whose other members include rooks, jackdaws, magpies, choughs and jays. They are big, with large heads and beaks, broad necks, strong-looking legs on which they strut about on land, uttering distinctive cronks and grunts and whistles. My sister-in-law was convinced there was a pig behind a hedge in a Wiltshire field once and thought I’d lost the plot when I told her what was actually making the noise. Sure enough, in the gap by the gate we looked in and saw a big black bird flap off. Like others in the crow family they are clever vocal mimics. But it is when they are airborne that they come into their own. Something so big ought not to be so graceful and agile.
We followed the one black shape among the gulls. Another appeared – no, two, three! – croaking convivially as they moved about above us, collecting friends and family as we watched, twelve, fifteen, sixteen.
A flock, a troop, a flight, a swoop: black silk rags tumbling; burnt paper scraps whirled through the air; feathered spitfires looping the loop. Cutting through the skies on their sides, upside down, interweaving with each other forwards-backwards, then dropping like their engine’s cut before rolling over and catching themselves. Their somersaults made the seagulls’ flapless ascents on the coastal thermals look mundane and amateurish.
We wondered what would be the collective noun for multiple ravens. A phalanx seemed too controlled. A flight too formal. A tumble too trivial.
“A parliament of ravens,” said Cee.
“Isn’t that owls? It’s a murder of crows.”
“But they’re not crows. And they’re much cleverer.”
I protested that that was hardly a good epigram for intelligence.
The coast path between Gunwalloe and Poldhu’s been diverted landward where the edge has slumped and crumbled. It’s hard to tell where the soft cliff becomes dune and vice versa. We walked up to better view the aerial gymnastics and found that the cloud was much higher now than it had been at Maenporth. There was a horizon again, and out west the outreaching landmass of the Penwith peninsula appeared across the bay. There were more than sixteen ravens now, twenty, twenty-five, seeming to multiply as we looked. We soon saw why: the cliff was riddled with tiny holes and fissures into which and out from the ravens nipped with such speed they looked as though they ought to crash land. I worried aloud about the stability of the cliff, whose sandy substrate looked as though it might disintegrate further without a moment’s notice – what if a raven was in his hole when it happened? Cee pointed out the speed at which they were taking off. It’s not as if a fall from great height would be a problem for a raven, it would just turn upside down and right itself and carry on as normal. Besides, they are not stupid, and animals are much better attuned to the earth than us lumbering and inattentive humans. They’d probably get out before a fatal slip occurred, sensing changes in the rock saturation or a subtle shift in stability. Animals always know when earthquakes are imminent before people even detect any twinge of a tremor, appearing outside of their usual habits, rushing to escape or behaving strangely.
Ravens have received bad press in the past and some people believe them to be unlucky. Perhaps if the biblical story of Elijah were as well-recited as that of Noah’s Ark people would value the great black birds more highly. Noah should have taken a leaf out of the Vikings’ book and used the raven as a navigational aid. All over the world they are intertwined with cultural symbologies and mythic tradition. In much folklore ravens are seen as harbigners of death, probably due to their black plumage and fondness for carrion, but for every negative association there are an equal number of positive and noble ones. They have long been renowned for their brains even before biological research found them to be the greatest exception to the ‘bird brain’ preconcept. In Norse mythology two ravens brought news and information to god Odin. Their names Huginn and Munnin translate as ‘thought’ and ‘memory’. Research has shown that ravens verbally communicate information, make their own tools and toys, and interact with other animals both for play and to get things they need or want. I discovered later that the supposed collective noun is an unkindness of ravens. Might an intelligence be more appropriate? Or an ambivalence.
We’d intended to walk over to Poldhu and back but the ravens detained us with their antics of flight. It was hard to get bored watching them. I wanted wings so I could join in. Returning back to Church Cove we saw more still, strutting about on the strandline. Then we turned inland and saw across the green lawns of the golf course more and more black shapes, scattered, grazing and numerous as sheep or rabbits, flapping and archk-archk-archk-ing amongst themselves.
I turned to Cee, who was not trying and not succeeding to count them all: “well, you wanted to go somewhere with something to look at.” Thirty. Forty. Fifty. More. A conversation. A convocation. A regiment. More than were countable. More than were collectible by whatever noun they’d been misassigned.
All the pictures are the handiwork of better photographers than myself (ravens go about far to quickly for me and my point-and-click camera!) so many thanks there – hover over the photos for credits and click on them for links.
For more on collective nouns both silly and serious click here.
To read Edgar Allan Poe’s fantastically gothic poem ‘The Raven’ click here.
You may also like on Open the Curtains:
for some better weather, late afternoon light, nesting birds on a nature reserve, a near miss with some crazy golf, and why you should sometimes leave the camera at home