When stress starts accumulating, when my headaches worsen and the frustrations of daily living become challenging to bear, I spend even more time in nature. Being out in the forest, surrounded by the natural world, always, unfailingly, settles and soothes me.
After several days earlier this month of forced hiding indoors to avoid hazardous levels of wildfire smoke in the air, it was a relief to have rain a few days ago, clearing the air, allowing for more time outside with much-needed exercise for me and my dogs.
Those days of horrible air, huddling inside, drove home just how fortunate and grateful I am to (usually) have pristine air and abundant nature to enjoy, right outside my door.
A good reminder that each day I should endeavor to open myself to whatever experiences the natural world throws my way. Some days feel routine, others…are quite magical. I live for the magical days. Monday, September 28, was one.
My life has been steeped in aviation and flight since my birth. On the day I was born my father – a Boeing test pilot, age 33 at the time – was co-piloting the first flight of a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker derivative (the military version of the Boeing 707). He would go on to test many iconic commercial jetliners over the course of his 35-year career with Boeing.
As you can imagine, flight and airplanes are in my blood and have been constant themes in my life. So much so that my first book – Growing Up Boeing – was a retelling of the stories I’d heard Boeing test pilots share among themselves. I’ve spent a lot of hours in airplanes, mostly with my father piloting and me helping navigate (I love maps), enjoying the “birds’ eye view” of the world below. Yet I’ve never had any desire to be a pilot myself. Go figure.
That early indoctrination into flying came with an appreciation of weather: clouds, winds, precipitation, updrafts, crosswinds, air temperature. It also came with an appreciation of the birds who mastered the air and weather. My father enjoyed sharing his knowledge of various birds and their flying habits with me. I soaked it all up.
My father passed away in 2009. I miss him constantly. We were both in awe of the natural world, and enjoyed sharing anecdotes about things we’d observed. Now, I see reminders of him, or activities we shared, in so many natural things: clouds, especially thunderheads; contrails; the drone of airplane engines flying low overhead; birds in flight, especially those engaging in aerobatics or soaring high on thermals over my home.
Yesterday, nature offered me two unique flying-world experiences. Taken together, I felt as though my father and nature were conspiring, tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, chill. Everything’s going to be okay. Get outside. Focus on the gifts each day provides.”
First, while sitting on my deck in the late afternoon reading a book about the natural world (Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams), I felt something slight hit against my shirt, near my hip. Looking down, I saw a blur of movement falling to the deck. What I initially assumed was a grasshopper – there are tons in the yard these days, no birds to eat them, and they’re constantly flying into me – was actually an almost comical stick-figure-like creature called a praying mantis!
Tumbling with gravity after its collision with me, the mantis landed in the space between the small concrete pad extending from my house and the deck extending into the yard. It raised its head just above the crevasse, keeping still, but eying me closely. I grabbed my phone and got out of my chair to photograph this rare visitor.
I haven’t seen a praying mantis in a couple of years, and that one was the first I’d ever seen. They’re rare here, having slowly moved northward into Idaho along with warming temperatures over the past couple of decades.
Did this mantis purposefully land on me, attracted to my bright blue shirt, thinking I was a flower? But they eat other insects, not plants. Or is it simply a poor flyer, like the grasshoppers? It ignored the dogs, even when Conall nearly stepped on it, but watched me closely. As I continued moving for a better camera angle, it stepped out of the crevasse onto the deck. After stretching its forelegs, it took wing.
Watching it fly across my yard toward the fence, landing in the field grass, I thought, “Not much of a flyer. No wonder it crashed into me.”
But those eyes! Their heads can pivot 180 degrees! To watch this praying mantis watching me, I felt a soft connection. A mutual curiosity, no fear. And isn’t that really what this life is about? Forging connections, not just with other humans, but with all life, all around us? Wherever and however those opportunities present themselves?
Suddenly nothing else bothered me. I was having too much fun observing this fellow occupant of the natural world to be aware of any stress.
The Raven Fly-by
A couple hours later, again sitting on the deck after taking care of some yard chores, I heard the resident ravens on the wing. I’m learning to distinguish their unique voices. There are at least three pairs that regularly soar overhead, talking to each other, the pairs often flying quite close to each other in displays of aerobatics. These may be juveniles who are still choosing mates, or they may already be bonded pairs; ravens bond for life and then remain in a fixed territory.
These pairs roam over my neighborhood every evening in the hour or two before sunset, eventually returning to their roost in the tall trees in the national forest just north of my house to spend the night. They’re raucous, their voices carrying easily during an otherwise quiet time of day. They cover much of this side of the valley as they engage in their aerial displays while also monitoring their territory. They usually include my house in their flight path, coming and going, getting a reaction out of Finn if he hears them. I’m pretty sure that’s the ravens’ intent.
Ravens are one of the smartest animals, with long and precise memories, recognizing people and animals. They can solve complex puzzles. They can learn to talk better than most parrots. They’re known for their playfulness and sense of mischief.
Monday evening something truly amazing occurred, at least in my experience. Something deeply meaningful to me.
The weather has been wonderful, like a second summer. The sun was moving toward the horizon, but it was at least 30 minutes until sunset. A pair of ravens flew overhead, north to south, the start to their usual evening foray before settling in for the night.
One in particular made a point of flying low and directly over the house as I stood on the deck, watching it while being watched. I could hear the air moving below its wings with each stroke, a deep and rhythmic swoop, swoop, swoop. The raven called out, twice. This raven has a distinct voice I’m learning to recognize.
As I turned slowly to follow the raven’s path overhead, I was stunned to see it execute a knife edge maneuver: a 90-degree roll, wings held extended without flapping, one tip pointing toward the ground, the other toward the sky. It called out loudly, once, right as it hit 90 degrees, then returned to level flight until it landed atop a tree with another loud call. The maneuver lasted two seconds, snappy and precise. The raven’s partner was flying not too far away, offering its own calls in return, but heading farther west before circling back to land near the first raven.
The knife edge maneuver didn’t seem meant to impress the raven’s partner.
No, I think the maneuver was for my eyes, my appreciation. Pilots will dip their airplane’s wings a few degrees to each side, back and forth, when flying overhead, a way of saying goodbye (or hello) to friends on the ground. Countless times over the years I waved to my father as he executed a wing dip while flying over me. I also watched my father perform the knife edge maneuver when flying his antique bi-plane in airshows in the 1980s and 1990s.
The raven’s knife edge maneuver felt like a dramatic version of a human aviator’s hello, a raven version meant for an audience of one, watching from below. An audience who knew what it was.
I’m going to be more vigilant, with my phone handy and set on video, when I’m outside in the evenings from now on.
I’d love to capture Raven saying that special hello to me on video.
In the meantime, for the curious, this is what a knife edge maneuver looks like from inside a fighter jet.
Feature image: a pair of ravens returning to their roost at sunset on September 9, 2020, an evening with moderate wildfire smoke in the air.