By GILAH YELIN HIRSCH
Having read the last post by Judy and Jack, I found myself remembering well the process and emotion of leaving one’s personal forest. It took weeks for me to say thank you and goodbye to all the flora and fauna I had come to know intimately in Tonto National Forest, just under the Mogollon Rim in northeast Arizona. I spent 16 months from May 1989 to September1990, encountering each blade of grass, large and small creatures including bobcats, elk, deer, and black bears, as well as thousands of enormous migrating tarantulas. A baby bobcat adopted me as his mother and slept in my hair every night. He never registered that he grew rapidly from a kitten to a huge adult male. He continued to sleep in my hair while he slid off the bed continuously through the night. From PJ’s first arrival, I never fed him and thus he learned to hunt during the day. I had been talking to all my forest friends throughout our time together and I told them when it was time for me to leave.
Returning to Los Angeles and city life with some equanimity was the most difficult feat I ever had to achieve. The noise of the city was and remains excruciating.
Here’s my story about a raven: about 15 years ago I was sitting in my roof garden from which I can see all of Los Angeles surrounded by mountains and the ocean. I faced east. Suddenly a raven flew in and settled at my feet looking at me. The beautiful black bird had a gold, circular-shaped earring in its beak and he (of course, he) seemed to be offering it to me. He laid it at my feet.
I imagined that he had once been a prince betrothed to a maiden before he was bewitched into becoming a raven. As in so many fairy tales, he was tasked to find and give a golden ring to the maiden and thus had flown around the world to discover his betrothed. I picked up the ring and put it on my left ring finger. The raven stayed close to me on the roof top for a long time. Eventually, he flew away.
I was so overcome with having entered into a fairy tale, that I made a painting called Birdman’s Proposal, memorializing the astonishing event. The earring remains on my desk.
Not long afterward, I noticed that a new nest of ravens had been constructed high up in the very tall Washington Palm tree next to my house. Annually, I watch the baby ravens learn to fly. There is always great drama way up in the sky – in and out of the nest, lots of raven emotion, bickering, aggression, and finally, peace in that nest. A marriage had occurred in some dimension after all.
From a purely scientific, not imaginative, point of view I would hazard that the raven was entranced by the shiny thing and picked it up. As he/she frequented the roof garden, the raven would have become acquainted with the sole person often sitting there. By then we had a relationship of fellow roof-sitting creatures. It was not unfathomable that the raven would give me the earring, much like a cat would bring a favorite mouse or bird to its human friend. The extension of the story resides in my interpretation, linking a natural event to a fairy tale. The event itself was not that surprising, but as with all occurrences, it is the context that gives it meaning. For me it was indeed a gift.
The painting became an additional step in interpretation, allowing a new image to emerge in which I and the transforming raven are uniting. The wings, feathers, rings, limbs, face, head with brain, community of birds, all are fused into a single image in a moment in time.
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Birdman’s Proposal (1999, oil on canvas) is the painting that heads this post.
Gilah is a painter, writer, filmmaker, and professor of art at California State University at Dominguez Hills, Los Angeles.