December, 2021, I am driving through the Mojave Desert and, despite the beautiful red rocks, despite the vast sense of space, despite the crystal blue sky, I can’t shake the sensation that this is a deadly landscape. It’s winter, so the temperature is reasonable in the middle of the day: 53°. I’m not worried about heat. No, as I look out the windshield at the never-ending blacktop of Interstate 40, counting the call boxes along the side of the road—which serve as a reminder that if something happens to my vehicle I am in real danger—a creeping sense of desolation crawls over my skin. This desert feels infinite—a patient, wind-filled landscape waiting for me to make a mistake.
But the landscape is far from dead. Huge ravens, with wingspans casting shadows longer than my vehicle, dart across the road, perch on the posts of the barbed-wire fences which stretch along the roadside, or take to the blue sky. When we stop at a rest stop, I pass a bright green garbage can and there is a raven on top of the trash and one on the sidewalk below. I swear these birds are taller than my arm. They watch the tourists, waiting for crumbs to drop—or for someone to be bold enough to give them food. Because the raven have clearly learning to make the best of a tough survival situation.
My favorite Aesop fable is the one about the thirsty crow/raven/blackbird. The only water to be found is in a pitcher left out by some unknown human. When the bird tries to get to the water, its beak doesn’t reach to the water at the bottom of the pitcher. The bird isn’t strong enough to tilt the pitcher. It doesn’t have a straw. So it flies away and picks up a pebble. It flies back and drops the pebble into the pitcher. Then it flies away again, picks up a pebble. Flies back, drops a pebble in the pitcher. Flies away. Picks up pebble. Flies back. Drops pebble in pitcher. And on and on. Until, finally, the water level is high enough that the bird—the crow/raven/blackbird—can drink. The moral of the story is something about being clever, working hard, and saving your own life.
At that rest stop, I’m convinced I’m in the presence of the descendants of that original bird. There they are, using human built structures to feed and water themselves, in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Survival out here is incredibly hard. And here they are—doing it. In fact, ravens seem to be thriving in the Mojave. They’ve done so well finding water sources (hello, humans restructuring water flow), food sources (hello, human garbage cans), and shelter (hello, human poles and billboards) that they’re considered a native invasive species, threatening the well-being of several other native species, including the desert tortoise.
As we continue on to the coast, though, I can’t be mad at the ravens for taking care of their own business. For the past couple years, I’ve been telling myself to just keep going, just keep going. The pandemic, the political turmoil, the uncertainty of one day to the next, makes it very hard to know how to navigate things. You know? But maybe Aesop figured out some secret by watching whatever black bird he watched so many centuries ago: a pebble at a time. Be clever, work hard, save your own life. (Maybe try not to be a dick and kill tortoises along the way, fellow ravens.) I think about that as the tires beneath me churn out one mile at a time, eventually leading to a coastline and a blazing, sun-soaked horizon.