Totem Or Not Totem


I call ravens my “totem animal”.  I suppose the use of the term might be considered “cultural appropriation” by some.  I am areligious, and not particularly spiritual, and am not pretending to any shamanistic knowledge or ability.  I have simply identified with ravens for a number of years, and have had what felt like significant contact with them at various times.

I first took notice of ravens in the late eighties, when I was invited to crew on a Grand Canyon river trip with friends.  That trip was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and led to 8 more river trips and 5 hikes into the canyon.  My friend warned me to keep an eye on the large black birds, telling me that they were cunning and often worked in pairs to try to steal food from campsites.  We were a large group, so we didn’t have any difficulty keeping them at bay.

A year later, I made my first multi-day hike into the canyon, down Hermit trail.  I am lucky to have survived unscathed.  I carried far too much and had inferior equipment.  Fortunately, I was young as well as dumb.  I did stay both nights at Hermit rapid, however, instead of hiking over to Boucher for the second night.  As was my wont in my pre-photographer days, I carried a little disposable film camera with me.  During the one full day I spent at the river, I watched river trips negotiating Hermit rapid, which, in my opinion, is the most fun of the canyon, even though Lava Falls is bigger.  At high water, Hermit sports a series of haystacks, or standing waves, that are relatively easy for a boatman to negotiate, and thrilling for passengers.

As I was hanging out on the beach, a pair of ravens came down to investigate.  I decided to try to get a picture of one and began stalking it.  It would wait until I was almost in position and then squawk and hop away.  I followed it for a bit until I suddenly remembered my friend’s warning.  I looked back, and, sure enough,  the other raven was trying to get in to my pack.  Laughing, I chased it off and sat down with a new respect for the birds.

About 10 years ago, I worked for about three months on an old adobe farmhouse north of Saddlebrook, next to the Canyon Del Oro wash.  It was a wonderful job.  Every day at lunch, I would take my camera (by then I had a DSLR) and head out to photograph birds and wildlife up the banks of the perennially running stream.  A pair of herons nested on the property.  So did a pair of ravens.  The first time I saw one of the ravens I tried to photograph it.  The moment I raised my camera, it flew off cackling.  The next day I tried again with the same result.  Then one day I was working inside and I heard “CAW!”  from outside.  Then again “CAW!”  I went out, and there was the raven photogenically perched on the power pole right by the building.  I went back in, got my camera, and slowly walked to within eyesight.  The bird watched me all the way, unmoving.  I switched on the camera, took off the lens cover, and slowly raised it to point at the raven.   “CAW HAHAHAHA!” he flew away before I could snap the shutter.

This became an ongoing game between us.  He would call me out (it might have been a she, who knows?), wait until I was almost ready to shoot, and then fly off laughing,  I never did get any more than a blurry shot of the bird diving down from the pole.


In those days I had a 1987 Toyota pickup which I had painted in a multitude of colors.  It was probably the most recognizable vehicle in Tucson.  It now resides in Carbondale Illinois, and I would love a photo of it.  Here it is around the time of this story.


It is sitting in front of the house I owned at the time, which was equally colorful.

Not long after I finished the job north of town, I was sitting in my house and I heard a “CAW!”, and then again “CAW!”.  I knew immediately what was up so I grabbed my camera and went out front.  There was a raven, sitting on the power pole in front of my house.  I raised my camera, and, sure enough, “CAW HAHAHAHA!” off he flew, making a loop across the street and heading back north, laughing all the way.  I am convinced that it was the same bird who followed my truck or found it 20 miles south of the ranch.  The opening photo of this post is the best I got that day.  I never saw the bird again.

A couple years later, I met my ex wife, who also considered ravens her totem, and used to call herself “my raven girl”.  Sadly, unlike ravens, we did not mate for life, but we do still have a strong bond and friendship, and ravens still have a special place in my world.

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