EVERY DAY, I drive the same highway into town. In a small community in the southwest corner of New Mexico, nestled in the foothills of the Gila Wilderness, my commute is a beautiful drive through a wild country with few people.
It takes me through the easternmost enclave of an incredible region called the Madrean Sky Island complex, or Madrean Archipelago, which includes my part of New Mexico as well as southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico. Here, 55 pine- and oak-studded mountain “islands” are encompassed within and separated by desert and grassland “seas,” with some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. More than 7,000 species of plants and animals, including over half the birds in North America, can be found here.
I have spent enough time driving this highway to intimately distinguish trees and rocks, where animal territories begin and end, and which drainages run with the monsoon rain. I know how and when the snow falls on the mountain passes in the winter. Driving my daughters to and from school in this beautiful place, I have felt able to stop time during the journey, which has resulted in wonderful conversations over the years.
The route feels like an old friend: familiar.
But one Thursday last June, I spotted an unfamiliar sight: a raven in the middle of the highway lane. As I got closer, I could see that it had been hit by a car. Knowing ravens well from living alongside them for 20 years, I suspected it was one of the pair that lives in the dead oak tree on the ranch next to us. If I was correct, the bird was about three miles from its home.
Over the years, I have observed this family as it raised its young every season in the old oak. I know it’s the same family because of the birds’ habits when they visit my 40-acre farm. They know me as I know them. In the afternoons, the duo sits on the top bar that separates the horse stalls, preening and cooing, nuzzling each other. They know me and tolerate my presence as I have watched, in amazement, their care for each other. They are two big, black, beautiful birds, flashing iridescent purple and magenta in the sunshine, making a vast assortment of sounds.
I am lucky to witness this unconditional love.
The pair disappears during springtime. Only the male returns daily to collect chicken eggs, if he can find them before I get a chance. Like many animals living in our desert community, ravens mate for life. They reinforce their bonds through beautiful, almost playful courtship flights. Their bonds with their young are also lifelong and multigenerational. A paired couple creates beautiful family groups, with previous broods helping to raise the new fledglings. The adolescents often stay in these family groups for the five or so years it takes for them to become independent. Ravens have a long lifespan of 15 to 20 years spent in the wild, so an extended family can live together in the same location for a decade or longer.
They build a new nest atop the previous year’s nest, using large sticks, twigs, cow dung, and any other building material they can scavenge. Over time, this pair’s nest became huge, the outside diameter spanning three to four feet, and unmistakable if you wandered close. It is the only large nest around, carefully placed in the upper branches, high enough to protect the family from predators. There is a six-inch-deep central hollow nestled in the middle of the structure, and it’s lined with Churro sheep wool, collected from the flock at the farm; shredded bark; and grass—perfect for the chicks.
By March, the pair lays four to six greenish blotched eggs. Incubation lasts about three weeks, the female patiently sitting as the male feeds her. By the middle of June, five to six weeks after the eggs hatch, the pair brings out the awkward fledglings for flight training. This is an exciting time for all involved. For several weeks, I enjoy watching them make runs, getting up in the air. I am surprised the horses and sheep tolerate their careening above the fields, tumbling and squawking loud adolescent cries. The parents are always patient and proud, making a multitude of tones with controlled pitch and timbre, creating vibrations that change in intensity.
Once the babies fledge, the parents return to their routine, coming over every morning to sit on the telephone pole at the barn. I’ve always felt that they wait for me to notice them. When I look up and say hello, they immediately go into a beautiful dance: a coo and a full-body dip. Then they click their beaks together for at least five minutes, with changes in frequency and additions of other unique sounds.
The ravens visit every day.
Their presence has always touched my heart.
But as I stopped my car and examined the black shape in the middle of the highway, other vehicles whizzing by, my heart sank. Somehow, I knew who this was.
I had never seen a dead raven on the road before. They are known to be too smart to get hit by cars. When I picked it up, I could immediately feel its breastbone. The desperately hungry bird had taken a risk and gone for some morsel in the lane but was not fast enough to get away.
Recent research attests to the remarkable scope of intelligence ravens display. Biologists have found that by four months old, immature ravens have cognitive skills that rival adult great apes. They have brilliant memories and can solve difficult problems by working together and learning from their mistakes. Ravens can remember a human face for years, and whether that human was kind or aggressive, and will act accordingly. Researchers have found that ravens understand the science of water displacement—they’re able to add pebbles to a container until they can get to the water. Even more remarkably, corvids (including ravens, crows, jays, and magpies) can make and use tools. Ravens have been seen using twigs and designing hooks to pry hard-to-reach food from crevices.
But these days, every creature in the West is in a desperate struggle to survive an incredible drought, the likes of which we’ve not seen in the Southwest in 1,200 years. Animals are risking their lives to find food and water. It was obvious that this bird miscalculated. In its desperation to retrieve the morsel, it spent an instant too long on the ground. I could feel where the car broke the bird’s neck.
At first, I was just going to move the raven off the highway. But something in my heart told me to put it in a more dignified place. I brought it out to the field beside our house and placed it in the dried grass by a tree that we call Grandmother Juniper.
Grandmother Juniper is the ancient, gnarled alligator juniper tree that lives next to our house. More than a millennium old, she’s one of the few junipers around, living with us in our expanse of grassland, a transition zone from savannah to forest in the high desert ecosystem.
When my daughters were first able to climb her, they named her Grandmother Juniper and spoke to her as if she were an old friend. The older they got, the higher they climbed. For them, her branches held the mystery of the world. I always knew where to find them when they were sad—high up in Grandmother Juniper, curled up next to her alligator-skin trunk. She kept their secrets safe.
After the dead raven had lain beside the tree in the grass for a few hours, I could hear another one outside. It was making a strange sound that I had never heard before or since. I stepped outside and saw a living raven talking to the other, nuzzling it and cooing. Tears came to my eyes as I watched this scene of mourning. Certainty set in: The dead bird was its mate and my friend.
The raven stayed with the carcass for the several hours before darkness, sitting in Grandmother Juniper and making the most melancholic, soft noises. The air was still and the evening calm, except for the laments of the raven. When night fell, all was silent.
The next morning, as I watered the horses and sheep, the raven flew up and sat on the telephone pole. I said hello. It talked back in a language I had not heard, a complex set of coos, clicks, and head bobs. The sounds were beautiful and quiet. My heart ached for its love of its lifelong mate.
Maybe this was its way of telling me thank you for bringing its partner home. Maybe it was just lonely. It sat on the pole, conversing with me. And then it flew away.
I am compelled to think about all the connections there are between the living things that surround us. If we allow them into our hearts, we can learn how to be human through their devotions and unconditional love. I know, in my quiet existence on the farm for more than two decades, these birds taught me what it means to love.
On that June day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the lives that had already been lost in the massive wildfire that was, at the moment, directly threatening to burn our place along the Mimbres River at the edge of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. The Black Fire would become the second-largest wildfire in New Mexico history. In six weeks, it decimated the high country in one of the most pristine wildernesses in the lower 48 states.
Many horrible family dramas were taking place. Mammals, birds, insects, and plants, already trying to survive drought, stood in the fire’s path, all frantic to outrun the massive blaze. My concern about material things, such as our house, felt insignificant compared to this horror. It is the struggle of all living things, trying to survive in the world that we have created.
But life is resilient, and out of this tragedy, there are lessons to learn. I wish that for one day, every human being on this planet could have the opportunity to see, experience, and listen with their heart to the beings that surround us, and to understand that we are insignificant compared with the immensity of all life.
Just one day would change the world.