You Can Go Back: Fragments Archives

Birds of Play
Birds of Play

I am trying to organize several million words and several thousand images that are contained in the June 2002 to December 2009 archives of Fragments from Floyd. I can’t tell you exactly why other than it is from this volume of morning ruminations and conversations that much of that which is now important to me–friendships, opportunities, experiences and personal growth–have come.

And as I said in the preface to Slow Road Home, it continues to be my hope that, like an archeologist collecting shards over time and across a great expanse, the fragments of one life found and examined day by day can ultimately be pieced together into some kind of meaningful whole. The two books are boxes of shards, each together a significant piece, but not the whole. Not yet.

So in the gathering process, I happened across this picture from October 2006–Ravens at play on a very windy afternoon. What makes this image special is that only today did I noticed in this close crop from the larger image that THIS bird is the one carrying the keep-away object. It is something white, beyond that, I cannot say. The image also reminds me that ravens must be very brown and not black birds. Notice the copper color when light shines through wing and tail primaries.

Here is how I described the experience in an excerpt from Ravens on Buffalo in What We Hold In Our Hands: a Slow Road Reader:

Our friends were first to notice as we stood on the highest point of the mountain, our daypacks resting on the metal rod that benchmarked the spot for map-makers. “One of them is carrying something” and the rest of us trained our eyes on the lead bird. I stood up for a photograph with my 200 mm lens–about half of the power I would have preferred to close the distance on this swift, black subject. A gust of west wind pushed me back down on my haunches.

The raven that carried the dark object was “it” and the others gave chase–usually from below, in case the lead bird were to drop the parcel, which I can easily imagine would be a rule of this game. I drop it. You catch it. Five minutes later, a bird appeared with a conspicuous white something, first in its beak, then in its talons. The object had indistinct edges, and I am almost certain it was a downy white feather. Again, at least one more bird pursued the carrier, and if birds know play, we saw it in their interactions on the Buffalo that day.

To watch their rolls and tumbles, spins and dives left a belly rush, as if it were we who were hurtling through space. We watched them find the path of stronger currents in the constant thirty mile an hour west winds as clearly as we find a marked trail in forest. They entered those rivers of air with the timing and agility of a surfer taking the best wave.

First one bird, then the next rode turbulent tubes of wind up the rocky notch below us. At the head of the ravine each surfer found the still point, hovered briefly, and fell with wings pulled tight, disappearing below our line of sight, only to reappear a few minutes later when it was his turn again.

We watched enthralled until we realized our faces and fingers were going numb from the cold wind. But the ravens did not feel the cold, or know the fear of heights or sense the risk of hurtling at great speed toward rock walls. They reveled in their medium and their time together, and for a giddy once-in-a-lifetime moment, we were able to ride the currents with them.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. If you can find a copy, read Ravens in Winter – it is a totally fascinating book about ravens. I loved it when I read it many years ago.

  2. Several million words? Are you sure?

    To reach two million words you have to write 782 words a day, every day, for the last seven years.

    If you write 500 words a day you would reach just a bit over 1.2 million words for the last seven years.

    You’re a prolific writer but I don’t know if anyone is that prolific.

    You might be closer on the images: There are 2,556 days in a seven-year period plus another 182 for half a year. If you average an image a day you could have topped 2,000 images.

    Still, hyperbole is always a writer’s best friend. Heck, I use it all the time.

  3. Having gotten my archives together in one place (finally) I see that in 2003 alone there were 283,000 words generated. I haven’t tallied other years (which were much less) but I think easily I’m over 1.5m, and of course, every single one of them was absolutely essential and necessary for the good of the planet. Right?

  4. I wouldn’t doubt that you’re at 1.5 million. Lot of words. Lot of good words. One of the things that has always amazed me about you is your ability to prove that a good picture is worth a thousand words along with your ability to then tell us about that good picture in, say, a thousand words or so. 🙂