The Kern River is low. And, the ravens are meeting. There you have it. Ravens meet about matters we think are in our hands.
As I step out onto the sidewalk of the Kern River Inn and head for a park bench along the river to watch the sun rise, a raven calls out from the treetops so loud that I am certain it is talking to me. I answer back, “What?,” but it flies right over me and, gliding low across the water, lands on the far bank and waits. Other ravens begin to gather until there are six or so. Their gathering is deliberate. It looks to me like the one who passed overhead called the meeting. I don’t know what the ravens are meeting about. I do know that the Kern River is low and I am worried.
It’s after breakfast now, and I am driving for miles up the North Fork of the Kern to answer a call to meet and sit with the river. I am a novice in the wild, never having set out alone in country like this, never having heard or answered a call from a river until now. I don’t know how to do this, but I have set out.
The farther upriver I drive, the greater the fear I feel growing in me. I have barely crossed the threshold of the wild this afternoon, leaving six campgrounds of people, their animals and tents and Coleman stoves behind me. Entering the quiet and immensity of giant Sequoias rising high into the sky on both sides of the road, I begin to search for the right place to settle in with the river. I am under the sway of mystery. Unprepared as I am, I believe this river has called me here, and I am answering.
To meet the river, I want to be as close to the roaring water as I can get. Every half-mile or so I pull off the road and climb down the rugged, sandy, and slippery embankment to assess the spot. I am careful not to twist an ankle. No one knows where I am. “I could die alone up here,” I think to myself. Several spots are perfect, but when I try to settle in, I find myself looking up the bank when I hear the rare car or truck pass by. I do not want to been seen from the road and worry I am visible. This becomes a ritual: checking, sizing up, moving my car, moving my position, standing in the middle of the road to see if I will be visible down below. I feel extremely vulnerable—a woman to rape then murder in the wild, like all the terrible stories of axe-murderers loose in the woods, real or made-up, I have taken in over a lifetime. I don’t know if my fears are totally irrational, but I do know that they are keeping me from the river. I have come a long distance, and it would be tragic to miss meeting the Kern out of fear. Finally, I pull my car up a distance from where I will settle (so if anyone stops to look for me, I will have set them off my trail). I walk back to the best spot I have found, climb carefully down, and settle in.
The river is roaring. Spray flies in the air around huge boulders below. I want so much to climb down even farther, closer to the water and the roaring. So many have died ignoring the power of these turbulent waters. There are signs everywhere along the riverbank tallying deaths- by-drowning dating back to 1968. I stay put.
I love this wild river. After sitting here many hours, I notice the river has begun to flow through my own rocky layers—in and out of canyons and among boulders. I feel an unexpected calm and exhilaration. Finally, I realize I am no longer afraid of the axe-murderers, real or imagined; this particular fear has yielded to the flow and roar of the river now coursing below me and through me—a great love has entered me.
As the sun begins to set, I am sorry it is time to go back to the inn. I will return to the river tomorrow. Driving downriver, I think of the snowcap melting on Mt. Whitney, the headwaters of the Kern, the melt running down the Sierra Nevadas to make this beauty, this dazzling silver white, these tumultuous waters, this love in me. A desire to protect these waters—this planetary life force—rises in me. I do not know the way of protection.
The sun is fast sinking in the west, making patterns of shadow and light on the mountains. The ravens are on my mind. I hope to make it back before dark to the place where they met this morning. I arrive in the park to low sunlight pouring yellow-white over the surface of the rippling water. The pale patch of packed dirt, the circle where the ravens met on the opposite shore is empty now, though their presence is viscerally palpable. It is as if the deliberations of the parliament of ravens linger here in the air.
Today’s parliament of ravens has unmade me. I now understand there is no end to what I believe I know about what the ravens are up to. First, I believed that the raven who called the meeting was shouting at me to get my attention; next I told myself that this same raven ignored me when he flew overhead; then I decided that the ravens were meeting about the Kern’s low water level, assuming it is their job to meet and do something about it; then, well, they met to unmake me. Finally, and this is likely their point (you see, there is no end to my asserting centrality in relation to the ravens—always I am the focus of their activity and deliberations), I have no earthly idea what the ravens met about, but I do know they met because I saw them meet. And, I also know I am worried that the Kern River water level is so low. I am most worried, though, that I do not know the way of protection of these waters. After first standing by while the ravens met on the banks of the Kern, then sitting with the river for hours, I ask myself, “What exactly is in my hands?” A parliament of ravens and the roar of this river have given this question to me.
I came to the Kern because for some reason, every time I listened to track eleven, Kern River, from Emmy Lou Harris’ CD All I Intended to Be, I wept. I had no idea where the Kern River was, but decided I would one day take a trip to see it. Several years passed, and one weekend, driving home from my son’s wedding in the woods in Northern California, I saw a sign for Kern County. Lyrics from Kern River began running through me as the landscape overtook me. I wept profusely as we drove through this beautiful land. Although I did not see the river, I felt it running through me.
The Kern River is as insistent and fierce as the lore and history that surrounds it. Many who have not respected its ferocity have lost their lives to its waters. “It’s not deep or wide but it’s a mean piece of water, my friend,” the song goes. Childhood was “a mean piece of water” for me and my six brothers and sisters, much of it like the Class 5 whitewater rapids of the Kern. The impact of a childhood of physical, sexual and emotional violence spilled over into many of my children and my siblings’ children. One of my own six children, Dorothy Ann, lost her life to heroin, but really to pain she could not surmount. My history is responsible for some of that pain.
I had not known that I am kin with the river and landscape—that we are inseparable—until I was overcome with a lifetime of tears riding through Kern County. A longing and call inscribed itself in me that day.
Recently, I read Barry Lopez’s Crossing Open Ground (1988). He suggests that who we become is intimately shaped by the exterior landscape: “…the interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is (as) affected by land as it is by genes…” (p.65). I grew up with five rivers—the Colorado, Gunnison, Platte, Rio Grande, and the Arkansas. These rivers shaped who I have become. And the Kern River called me and is shaping me today. A Parliament of Ravens tells of my first journey to the Kern.
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About the Author
Sharon Rodgers Simone is a poet, writer, educator and activist. She helped establish a private, college-prep high school for disadvantaged youth in Detroit, taught and pioneered program development in institutions of higher learning, including a first- in- the-country Master’s in Social Justice program in Detroit, and worked professionally for many years as a chemist and medical technologist. In 1990, Sharon sued her father, a retired FBI agent and nationally recognized child abuse expert in Denver District Court, for child abuse. Hers was one of the first of a tidal wave of cases to be heard, won and reported in the national media. Her life story was portrayed by Marlo Thomas in a CBS television movie, “Ultimate Betrayal,” which is still being shown around the world. With former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, Sharon is responsible for getting The Child Abuse Accountability Act passed in Washington, D.C. Now federal pensions can be garnished for child abuse judgments. Sharon garnered recognition as a national advocate and spokesperson on behalf of victims of child sexual abuse and domestic violence. Her vision and emphasis on community-based transformation of these inequitable structures and relations resulted in path-breaking national programming and training for judges, attorneys, psychologists, pediatricians, child protection experts and social workers as well as laypeople dedicated to social change toward a more just society. Sharon’s work now is focused on writing, teaching and living by other, older ways of knowing, relating, being and acting—dreams, divination, Council.