The Ravens of Pine Mountain

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Songbirds, murders, rhododendrons, jack props, stinging nettles, Kentucky & white blazes.

To begin, the raven is not at all like the crow.

The crow, for one, is ubiquitous. Acclimated to our cities and the edges of our farms, the crow is opportunistic. They band together in flocks—murders, as they’re known—and make themselves conspicuous by their noise, being the largest of songbirds. Their intelligence is well documented. They use tools. They have words, including one for “human.” They are even said to mourn their dead.

The raven, for its part, resembles a raptor more than a songbird. If a raven has feelings, they are near impossible to study. First you’d have to find the raven to even ask. It’s said that a raven will sometimes push rocks onto people trying to climb to their nests.

Unlike the crow, the raven is mostly silent and, in my experience, solitary. When they do use their voice, it is low, guttural. I’m told they can imitate the voice of a wolf.

He had so articulated the light that the sandstone capping the mountain seems inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

They prefer to live where humans rarely go, which is why I’d often see them in desert canyons, shaded under juniper limbs, or perhaps squatting on a strand of barbed wire. When ravens band, they are called a conspiracy, or an unkindness. The raven must know better than to come close to the city. It even shies from the cornfields.

The last raven I saw was on the far side of Horse Ridge, east of the Cascade Mountains, when I was looking for pictographs along a dry riverbed. When I left the desert, moving east for a job, I thought I’d never see one again.

In Kentucky, where I came to settle, I see crows along the Ohio, roosting in cottonwoods beside the scrapyards. They sometimes flock in small bands overhead, moving north in the morning, toward the river, then south again in the evening.

When I learned about the ravens on Pine Mountain—the only nesting pair in the state—I drove east to the Appalachians to find them. I had my own questions to ask.

Compass Rose

On Labor Day I left before dawn, following the interstate and the Mountain Parkway east. I winded my way through the coalfields of the Cumberland Plateau.

Whitesburg, at the base of Pine Mountain, is some three hours from my city. When you arrive, the sharp ridge is obvious. It’s not so much set on the horizon as the horizon itself, unmoved and indifferent.

The highway climbs its cliffs with difficulty. The north face is sheer, an open book in which you might read the geology of the region. The grade is hacked from layers of limestone, which are often quarried, which is to say, scarred. A few houses hug the slopes among those ruins.

The roadway crests the peak near the remains of an old homestead. I stopped here once, in winter, on assignment for the Kentucky Monthly. That January, I waited perhaps half an hour for the photographer who would take me onto the trail along the ridgeline of Pine Mountain. While I waited, I examined the chimney, its firebox cold, its hearth suspended in the air so that I had a sense of the size of the house’s foundation. Someone wintered here, I thought. Perhaps a man and a woman.

Stratus gathers along the mountain’s lip in earnest.

Brett Bentley, the photographer, knows the mountain well. We struck out roughly northeast, toward High Rock. I knew of that pinnacle by his photograph of it, taken in autumn. He had so articulated the light that the sandstone capping the mountain seems inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

We never made High Rock; it was late in the day, and I was anxious over getting caught in the dark. I did see Eagle Arch and a grouse drummed up from the rhododendrons. In clearings, I peered out over the Appalachians. Aside from Black Mountain to the southeast, any of the points along Pine Mountain’s 125-mile-long ridgeline are the highest peaks in the region. The highest, at Birch Knob, rises more than three thousand feet from the sea from which the mountain was born. Stratus gathers along the mountain’s lip in earnest. One could camp, as it were, in the clouds.

Compass Rose

The weather, when I arrived that following Labor Day, was perfect. The heat, tolerable; the sun, bright. I crossed the mountain and switchbacked down the highway toward Oven Fork. At the bottom of the downgrade, I turned east along the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River.

I parked the car in a small meadow. The houses along the road were quiet. I laced my boots and buckled into my backpack. I’d filled six quarts of water for the day. Before I mounted the trail, I spoke to the ravens, though from a distance I would have appeared to be speaking to the trees, or to the air. I asked the ravens if I might see them, as if I understood what it meant to see. Then I started up the mountain’s south face.

Compass Rose

W    e are lucky to have so many stories of Raven. Once, they say, he painted himself white with lime and fooled a young woman into marrying him. When the people found out, they stole his beak. He tricked them to get it back and, happy with himself, made the jubilant noise I’ve heard while mapping my way into the dry canyons, looking for rock drawings.

Compass Rose

The map I had of Pine Mountain was entirely inadequate. A compass would have done me little good, as the map had no compass rose. But it offered contour lines with enough relief that I could distinguish the creek hollows and the sharpest cliffs. I could guess as to where I was.

I minded the poison ivy and stinging nettles, the latest pioneers of this country. The fact that the mountain people cut so much timber from these woods, selling it to the mines for jack props and collar poles, or to the war effort for rifle stocks, allowed the weeds a substantial foothold in the disturbed ground. Kudzu covers steep slopes where people tried to grow corn and failed, the soil washed away. Each of these weeds covers scars and strangles everything in its path. You have to go deep into the mountain, into the coves between its false peaks, to get away from the weeds.

By Labor Day, even the weeds were yellowing. The blooms of rhododendron and laurel were long past. I can’t remember seeing many flowers on the ground, either. Bad Branch Falls, at the end of a spur trail, was thinned to a trickle. With so little water, the garbage at its base between the boulders was evident. It’s here, in this cove, where the ravens are thought to nest, though I learned this long after I’d come down from the mountain. But even then it seemed obvious to me that this perch was ideal, as if I’d felt their presence.

I packed out what garbage I could reach.

Whitesburg was a cluster of white boxes on bottomland that probably once served as cornfields.

I continued up the mountain, ducking through the eaves of rhododendron, to an old logging road. I crossed and then paralleled the creek north for some ways before the road became simply a tread through upland bogs and gullies of ferns. Under the overhang of Baker’s Rock, I found a turkey feather stuck into the dirt near an old campsite. I tucked it into the netting of my pack. I passed High Rock, though I climbed it first. It is like an altar jutting away from the peak. The last pitch took me to Mars Rock, a cracked and pitted sandstone shelf that tilts toward the sky before abruptly falling off to the Cumberland Plateau below.

Here I sat down in the shade. I ate, listening to the silence that robed the hills below. From that promontory, I could see over the strip mines. Pockets of lunar landscape dotted the forest. Whitesburg was a cluster of white boxes on bottomland that probably once served as cornfields.

It was then I heard the ravens.

Compass Rose

There are many stories of Raven being a trickster. This is one of them.
I knew to watch for my return route—the trail formed a loop—somewhere in the vicinity of Mars Rock. But when I heard the ravens, farther down the ridge, to the northeast, I followed them. Or, rather, I followed their call.

Being at the peak, I figured I’d see them easily. If they took flight, I could catch a glimpse of them soaring out over the plateau, or perhaps in the opposite direction, toward Black Mountain, toward Virginia. I followed and listened. When I heard them, they seemed always to be just ahead of me.

I continued on, passing a wide ravine to my right. I searched the trees. I wasn’t keeping track of how far I’d gone. When the cliffs suddenly rose to my right and hemmed me in, the cliffs to the left falling away, I felt that first wave of panic. I didn’t hear the ravens. I knew I’d missed the return trail. The ravens, I thought, must have led me off my path. I had to use my simplistic map to determine, by barely legible gradients, where I was. I watched for the white blazes on the trees.

Of course I knew that it’s impossible to get lost on a ridge, though one can go too far and waste time, get tired. This was a simple trick I played on myself. I turned around, disappointed. I watched for blazes at my left now, waiting for the loop trail. At worst, I could return the way I came. When I got back to Mars Rock, watching for the blazes painted on the treeless stone face, I found the trail junction tucked back in the woods below the stone’s terminus. I felt foolish, frightened as a shadow.

The mind bleeds out its reservoir of dreams. A dream escapes into the world.

I stopped. I walked back up to the peak. Beneath the ledge, wild blueberries grew, though the fruits were long gone. Probably eaten by ravens. I sat in the shade of some rhododendrons and watched a few clouds chug by.

One caught my attention. It looked exactly like a rabbit. It was, in fact, a rabbit. I rose to the fact that I was having a vision. I’d had them before. The mind bleeds out its reservoir of dreams. A dream escapes into the world. The rabbit saw me. I knew that.

Then it became a canine. A wolf, or a coyote perhaps. I’d like to think so, but it may have been just a domestic dog. Then it became a woman’s face, at once ethereal and clear. Like the ghost of a woman. I began to understand why one sees God from the mountain. The world had come to greet me, or watch me. It may be that it simply glanced at me, indifferently.

I was a cloud staring back at myself.

Compass Rose

For most of the hike down from the peak, I saw no one. When I reached the spur for the falls, I heard people in the woods. I passed a family sitting beside the main trail. They’d come with a Styrofoam cooler. They greeted me. I hoped they’d leave no trash behind. I find it hard to trust people sometimes. It is the raven in them, no doubt. Or else the raven sometimes behaves like us.

I’ve heard that the ravens have not been seen recently on the mountain. Perhaps they’ve moved on. Perhaps they never were. I think I am only disappointed because I did not see the ravens.

We are overly accustomed to our eyes. As any ornithologist will say, mostly we hear the birds. What matters is that I heard the ravens. They spoke.

It’s only that I couldn’t understand what they were saying. There’s no way of telling. I never got to ask.

Sean Patrick Hill is the author of three books of poems and a trail guide, Hiking Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Kentucky Arts Council and the Elizabeth George Foundation. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lead image by Hannes Wolf

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