From the edge of the boreal

I’ve just returned from a short trip to northwest Ontario where I listened to some trees and rocks (a purpose that did little to impress when recounted to immigration officials).

KakabekaViewAmong the boreal delights were ravens, a species that according to the Objibwe, the First Nations people of the region, brought the world into being and gave the two mainstays of life: water and fish. In the presence of these highly social, intelligent, garrulous birds it is obvious why the Objibwe regard ravens with such respect. Awesome creatures.


Raven fly-by. Balsam fir and serviceberry in foreground.

A fledgling raven sat in the tree above my tent, calling to its sib and two parents. The following recording, made amid a haze of mosquitoes, captures some of the birds’ vocalizations. The loud, insistent squawk is the youngster. The Objibwe name for raven is gaagaagi and young ravens are known as gaagaagiins, names that capture the talkative nature of these birds.

And as we listen, insects gather to gather atoms for the regional taxation system. Naked mammals are in the highest tax bracket. Note the backcurved sheath, exposing the penetrating stylet. Her hind legs are twitching in delight.

mossiekakabekaUnder the ravens, insects and balsam firs: old, old rocks.

chertBIFThese cherts (from the Gunflint formation) are 1.88 billion years old and contain the oldest known fossils of any lifeform in North America. Until some Australian and African finds beat the record, they were the oldest known fossils from anywhere: life’s first recorded mark upon the Universe. J. W. Schopf’s 2000 PNAS paper has some great photos of these microscopic cells, our (great)^1,880,000,000-grandparents.

In lieu of interpretative signage at this site of Universal importance, we have ♥KIMI blazed on a fir tree. What is amazing to me is not that someone would put their mark on a tree, but that Kimi or her friend came walking in the boreal forest prepared with a can of pink spraypaint just in case. Gotta love Homo sapiens’ complicated inner world, all jumping out of our nerve cells: those microfossils gave rise to some interesting phenomena.


The lichens grow on, poking fresh new growth from under their pigmented parts. If we knew the growth rate of the lichens, we could date this new Gunflint stratum quite accurately.


30 thoughts on “From the edge of the boreal

  1. Dave Mills

    David, you’re familiar with Bernd Heinrich’s book, “Mind of the Raven”? I thought it was a great book about an amazing bird.

  2. Mollie Babize

    Christina Gibson turned me on to your blog, and am I ever glad! Love it, especially this raucous youngster.

    Mollie Babize (Conway School | Admissions DIrector)

  3. Lib Dornbush

    I live in this land, and it is fascinating to hear its joys described by a newcomer. These old old rocks rise out of the ground behind my house, and they are part of my daily experience, as are the ravens which tease my collies and lead them on fruitless chases over the fields and into the bush. I have seen a clever pair lead my dogs to the south, and my neighbours’ to the north, where the dogs meet, confused, and the ravens rise up in a laughing spiral!

    When my mind becomes cluttered with modern trivia and petty woes, these rocks and all that lives on them, put my tiny experience in perspective. I love to travel: I could not live anywhere else.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Dear Libby, Thank you. It was a great pleasure to be able to spend a little time in this beautiful part of the world. And the laughing ravens: they do have mischief in their blood and the intelligence to put it into action. Their companions, the warblers, were also remarkable. It was a joy to see them on their breeding ground. They rush through here twice a year on migration. Best wishes, David

  4. Lucy Keeble

    David, I just returned from two weeks in Canada, and spent a good week bouncing among Kootenay, Jasper and Banff National Parks. I saw similar, I think, ravens on my hikes. Very cool birds. I brought home rocks from lakes and glaciers and paid dearly to do so. I did not bring home this one which I ran into around the top of Marble Canyon. Could you comment on the red-orange growth on this rock exposed to the sun. The forest around it was burned some years ago, so it was in direct sunlight. Oh, and here is a little fellow I had never seen before. I thought it was a chipmunk but it is actually a squirrel, right? I am confused. Are our chipmunks ground squirrels? Then, there was this red lichen? growing on a rock in the shade around Lake Moraine. Very beautiful as well.

    So, I have to show off a picture of Lake Moraine. A photo of this same lake inspired me to make this trip. I thought if there is a setting as beautiful as this with water this color, I have to go see it. When I ran into this big guy and his friend, I was shocked to learn that elk can be bigger than quarter horses!

    Cheers! Lucy Keeble

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Lucy, Your trip sounds wonderful! I can’t comment on the photos (none came through) but about chipmunks: we have the eastern chipmunk here in TN (and the gray and fox squirrels). In Canada you might have seen a red squirrel (smaller than the gray) and/or a least chipmunk. The growths on lichens that you describe are almost certainly lichens. Best wishes, David

  5. batesvillian

    David — The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s distribution map shows that, in the eastern U.S., ravens are mostly found in upper New England and along the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Tennessee is notably excluded. Any ideas as to why? In addition, I’d think that TN’s piece of the Cumberland Plateau would be great habitat — relatively high elevation, lots of nesting sites. Are they absent because of past deforestation? Have you observed any in the Sewanee area?

    We’re fortunate to have them in the piedmont Virginia hills, within sight of the Blue Ridge. On warm fall afternoons, I love hearing their lazy “rok” call high overhead, so high that they appear as specks against the blue sky. They are almost always solitary.

    I’d love to observe one up close. Then again, maybe not — these hills are known locally as the Ragged Mountains — Poe country.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Ravens used to live on the Cumberland Plateau. I suspect that the abundant crows and changed landuse patterns are what drove them out, combined with some shooting. Some TN ornithologists were talking about hacking them back, but I don’t think the plan ever went anywhere (and I don’t think there was anything as grand as a “plan”). My suspicion is that ravens might be able to make it on the larger state parks north of here, but that is just a hunch. They’re in the high elevations in the Smokies but nowhere else in TN that I know of.

      My up-close encounters with them have always impressed my ears: the birds make such a huge range of sounds and often seem to talk to themselves as they work. Poe painted them too dark (although it is presumptuous to cast such a judgment!). They are so full of life.

  6. Andy Kegley

    David–like Tom Macfie, and Dan Fort and myself–all Sewanee class of 80 and 81, we’ve all been north of the 45 latitude this summer. Dan over on the east side of Georgian Bay, Tom in Maine somewhere, and me in Tobermory, on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. What i loved about the Bruce was the detritus from the Niagara Escarpment–some truly great rocks which i only smuggled 9 back into the southern climes for future assimiliation with my local southwest Virginia limestone, and the loons. No ravens there–only loons.
    Really enjoy your blog!
    Andy Kegley

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you Andy! Sounds like a great trip. I have not visited the Bruce Peninsula, but it looks like a wonderful place. No doubt the wind can be pretty impressive with the lake all around.

  7. Sarah Schmidt

    David, I loved listening to the young raven. I live on an island in Puget Sound northwest of Seattle, and am lucky enough to enjoy the presence of ravens year round, though not in great numbers. This spring we heard them every day in the patch of second- or third-growth forest behind our house. One day I walked up there, following cries that sounded just like your recording!, and they led me to a nest in the top of a Douglas fir, swaying in the wind, with heads and tails of four raven youngsters poking over the rim. Seeing me they pressed down and got quiet!

    Any idea what kind of vireo is singing in the background of your audio? Reminds me of Red-eyed Vireo from my New England days, but I don’t know what others might sound similar and be present where you were.

    Thank you as always for your delightful and informative posts.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      What a great sighting. Raven nests are real social hubs.

      Extra credit points for attending to the background in the recording! I think this is red-eyed, but Philadelphia is possible there also. My ear is not well enough tuned to know the difference (I’ve never spent any time around Philadelphia vireos, living so far south). I spent some time in the campground trying to get good looks at the singers. The only ones I saw were red-eyed.

  8. Karen Pick

    I second Lib Dornbushs’s sentiment – how refreshing to read of someone’s seeming appreciation of our mosquito-ridden bush and the be-prepared mindset of lovestruck locals! Made me look up “chert,” I word I did not know (although a vein of the stuff runs through the shale wall of a small ravine where I walk the dog in the winter).
    Interesting to read that there are no ravens in Tennessee. They’re not frequent in my immediate area, but two flew above me this spring. “Language” is what made me look up! Weird, riveting, mechanical sounds that smacked of conversation, no other way to put it, between sidekicks heading with a brisk pace toward the St. Lawrence River.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you, Karen! I didn’t mention how impressed I was by the amazing numbers of warblers, super-abundant pearly-eye butterflies or gorgeous aspens… You live in a remarkable place. I hope to get back in winter when the ecology must be profoundly different.

  9. Pingback: Sounds from the edge of Boreas’ kingdom | Ramble

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