© Lea Meienberg

Last night, I came across a marten in our street. He and his family are unpopular because they crawl inside engines and eat away at the cables. You can insure yourself against marten damage and they sell marten death at the petrol station. I don’t know how it works, but the poster promises it doesn’t use any poison. Martens stink, as far as I know. And I’ve heard about all the dirt they’re supposed to leave behind. But these are just rumours. Personally, I’ve never got closer to one than twenty metres away. I don’t seem to be very popular with the marten family either.

However, I have had the pleasure of meeting a dormouse. I found this little chap one morning in our house in the mountains, in the kitchen cupboard, in among the nuts. He was sitting there with fat cheeks and bright eyes. Didn’t move. Looked at me. Just kept on eating. Wasn’t going to be put off.

Later on, I read up about their habits. A dormouse sleeps almost all the time. He spends nine months out of twelve not awake. And anyone who isn’t awake can’t eat. Because he doesn’t have much time, he sticks to high energy foods. This makes him fat quickly and that makes him tasty. Dormouse fat is aromatic, I read in one old cook book, and if anyone ate what little flesh there is, it wouldn’t do them any harm. Since Roman times, people have kept dormice in clay pots, a so-called glissarium, and fed them until they were ready to eat.

I did not consume this little grey gnome but carried him out onto the field in front of the house in a cardboard box that I managed to wangle the gourmet into, after several attempts.

And in that state I abandoned him to his fate, together with a few nuts, amid the clover and the dandelions.

The next morning he was back in the same place, in the kitchen cupboard, attacking the almonds. So I carried him out of the house a second time, but this time far across the stream, and since then, there has been no trace of this happy eater any more.

That ball of fur understood me very well. He was familiar with my habits. He knew where I kept the nuts. What was the difference between us? Language? Language as a reason to show a hungry narcoleptic the door? Language as difference?

Ravens are incapable of guilt. They do not understand the three principles of convention, conformism and sanction that determine and shape human society. Lukas Bärfuss

But I wanted to tell you about my three ravens.

The first raven was recently on the roof of the house next door, pulling away at the moss with its beak. While doing this it loosened a roof tile until it came off and slid down, hopping over the gutter and dropping four floors below, into the back yard. It smashed in the passageway that a house-painter had walked though just a few moments earlier, to return to the window shutters he had taken off that morning and put up on blocks to paint. If he’d finished his break a couple of seconds later, the blasted tile would have killed him. 

He was absorbed in his work and didn’t realise the danger he had just escaped. But the raven was frightened by the noise and flew away.

I witnessed this incident. No one would have been able to find a judge to convict this creature, not even the widow or the children of the poor house-painter. Ravens are incapable of guilt. They do not understand the three principles of convention, conformism and sanction that determine and shape human society. Birds don’t understand the rules, they wouldn’t know how to keep them and they wouldn’t be able to connect any sanction to the deed. The raven remains free from punishment because it acts without intent. It’s not trying to kill the house-painter for any reason unknown to us – it’s not acting out of jealousy or revenge, even if our house-painter had felled a plane tree in his garden where this raven’s family had been building their nests and raising their young for generations.  

Animals don’t bear grudges, we tell ourselves: their aggression serves no other purpose than ensuring their survival. Attributing a feeling such as gratification to a non-human organism would appear to defy reason, at least the reason of grown-ups. A child has a different relationship to animals and plants and the rain and the wind.

Among adult humans, ravens have a bad reputation: they are regarded as dirty, they are noisy and it is rare for anyone to speak up in their favour when ravens are to be scared off or killed. There is no need to even bother with old folk notions – so, in other words, I don’t even have to get up and take the dictionary of German superstitions off the shelf in order to conjure up the miasma of misfortune that has surrounded the raven since time immemorial. To the Teutons, if I remember correctly, they were God’s poultry. One can certainly say that we have never been indifferent to ravens. Murderous desires keep returning and a raven has to watch out whenever a human comes near.

This is also true of the second raven I will talk about here.

Who can find the defining feature of what is human? Who knows the features of animals? Lukas Bärfuss

Before I met it, I had already heard a few things about it. It was well known in the neighbourhood. I can’t remember who told me about him but, one day, I learned that there was a mad bird living near the new secondary school who would attack anyone who went near its territory. This aroused my curiosity. I wanted to see this.

Shortly after midday one Wednesday, it must have been around half past one, I arrived outside the school. There was no one to be seen. The gravel garden lay there in cool spring sunshine. There was a pond, some reeds, young trees whose trunks were still wrapped in hessian and tied back to stop them bending too far. The red building behind it was modern, ugly, important. So this is where the demon was meant to be living. 

Was I uneasy? Definitely.
Was I afraid?
No, I was panicking.

But turning back was not an option for a fourteen-year-old boy. It would have taken a Doberman to do that. Or a caretaker with a rifle. A monster. Not a raven.

I looked around. Nothing to be seen. It was silent. Was it all just nonsense and, like an idiot, I’d gone and fallen for it? There weren’t any birds here. There was no wicked raven here.

Then suddenly a black goblin hopped across the gravel: swift, hunched and unfriendly. After three pretend attacks and a skilful feint it jabbed its beak into my right foot, deliberately targeting it, angrily. Only my shoe protected me from a deep and painful wound.

I recoiled and the feathered demon pursued me; another step back and it attacked again. I stumbled out of the garden, narrowly missing the pond, and ran away till I was over the canal and reached the stadium – where I was safe.

That is still the only bird that has ever attacked me. I can’t generalise on the basis of this experience. Even then, I assumed that this raven must have something wrong with it and not be quite right in the head. I had read in a book that birds suffer from false perception at an early age and that chicks, for example, can mistake a beeping football for their mother. This bird must have suffered some kind of similar damage. But why did it go for my feet? Why didn’t it aim for my head if it seriously wanted to scare off someone like me? But what if it didn’t want to hurt me, just scare me off? Then its behaviour would have been proportionate and reasonable.

This raven also knew nothing of my conventions or my rules, it didn’t curse or swear, it didn’t argue, but I still can’t claim that it didn’t understand me. It was not unreasonable to push a pint-sized smartarse back behind his boundary. This was the raven’s garden. I had known that and been given a rap on the knuckles, no, on my foot.

Adults have no need for ravens, they can do without these birds. 

Even if, nowadays, grown-ups also understand or pretend they understand how much every animal and every plant is part of an equilibrium. They know this, of course, but this doesn’t mean that adults deduce from it that animals have a right to live. Ravens as a whole are needed – but this particular raven isn’t.

This is why ornithological handbooks do not contain photographs, because they show individuals, singular cases like Jacob, rather than a general picture, and the particular needs to be excluded for human beings to be able to create a category. I discovered this a few days ago in the remarkable Verzasca delta. Here, I came across two birdwatchers behind some white willows, each one equipped with a huge telescope on a tripod. They were using these to observe the dicky birds in the reed belt.

There’s a little egret over there, said one. It’s sitting on a piece of dead wood in front of the peninsula.

And there’s a great eaglet right next to it, murmured the other. 

Then they were silent again and carried on categorising things. They saw a lot of species, but they didn’t see an animal. 

Ravens are recognised as a group, as a species, but I could happily do without that one particular raven that pestered me. There is only the plural and how large that plural is, is decided by the principle of specific circumstances. 

For me, precisely the reverse is true. I couldn’t care less about ravens. I regard them with a very special kind of total indifference. However, I cannot do without one particular raven. This is going to be the third one here.  

I can’t remember ever calling Jacob a raven; raven is what I describe him as to be able to explain this creature to an adult who cannot understand who this Jacob was. Lukas Bärfuss

This lived on a different roof, in a different city, in a different time, in my childhood, high above the river, right at the top above a street in the old town, where I lived with my mother and where my father would occasionally turn up before he ultimately disappeared. When you came into our apartment, you found yourself in the kitchen and you went through this kitchen, to the living room, with another room enclosed beyond it, which I had populated with Indians drawn in red and blue. Here, there was a window, a gap, and here Jacob, a black feathered creature of the skies, would appear. Jacob would look to the left, to the right and present himself in his black beauty and the gloss of his splendid feathers before grabbing the cheese rind that I had just put out on the window ledge. Then, he would push off again and dive into the air, moving in circles between the chimneys and battlements of a small town, the provisional home of a little boy. 

I can’t remember ever calling Jacob a raven; raven is what I describe him as to be able to explain this creature to an adult who cannot understand who this Jacob was. I still feel the same way today.

That child no longer exists and Jacob has also disappeared, but there is still the thought of Jacob, and whenever this man who I have since become sees a raven, he thinks of that Jacob, and whenever this man sees a black feathered fellow, one of those mischievous, alert and busy fellows, then he remembers his childhood friend.

Some people will claim I’m exaggerating, but still I have to insist: without Jacob I wouldn’t have survived my childhood. At least, not that particular part of it, which means the same for every subsequent part. No, life under those awful roofs would have been fatal for me.

Jacob showed me a direction, one leading up into the skies, an orientation that I have retained to this day and which heals my eyes and soul on a daily basis, when the depressions caused by noise and dirt become impenetrable, when the dust is stirred up and the air goes murky, by bustle and activity, by the bourgeois thinking that, often enough, tries to put an end to a raven for disturbing a quiet life, healthy sleeping habits and Sunday lie-ins. A certain life, or rather, a certain way of living, is incompatible with the presence of ravens. 

I learned from Jacob that the rind smells and you can forgo the cheese if you own the skies.

If the roof tile had killed the house-painter, then it would not have been the ravens living across in the woods of the mental asylum who were guilty of his death. It would have been a certain, particular, specific raven. That thought feels like an outrage. As a consequence, deer would no longer be run over in the forests: each one would be the victim of an accident. We cannot think this, because then, the line would disappear that we claim to stay behind.

If a tick bites me and I twist it out of my flesh, then I feel no rancour towards it. I don’t take encephalitis or Lyme disease personally, because, again, here the line would disappear that we use to separate the human from the animal.

Some people create a lot of mischief with these adjectives. Sometimes, they mean one thing and sometimes, another, so they don’t describe anything at all. They suggest a category where there is just chaos. Who can find the defining feature of what is human? Who knows the features of animals? How could I exclude Jacob, from whom I learned so much about my own humanity?

Correspondingly, or on the contrary, whether as praise or vanity on the one hand or in shame or disgrace on the other, as useful as science is, and what fun, and it produces fantastic effects, one should be equally wary of relying on its verdict about reality. Biology contains few clues on how to avoid marital discord and yet, one may claim, if this objection arises, that all relationships are biological in that they do not occur exclusively in humans. 

Life and living together are two different disciplines.

Life and living together are two different disciplines. Lukas Bärfuss

What can we learn from a raven? Certainly rather more than from ravens as a kind or a species. Then I would have to compare each person with each raven – and who is in a position to do that?

Humans kill other humans who have the gift of the same language. Only creatures who speak our language can become part of our history – regardless of whether we kill them or not. I have never eaten a raven – not as satay and not à l’orange.

What is the difference between a New Caledonian crow and a rook? It is the use of tools. Is this why New Caledonian crows are more popular?

Serial killers, I once heard, begin their handiwork on animals. Human gratification is the objective – and mine too, by the way. I have destroyed too much life and I am still destroying too much life. My neighbours are no better. In this massacre, we are second to none. I don’t have a raven on my conscience.

Fables are rare morality tales. A thirsty crow throws gravel into a half-empty jug till the water rises to the top and thus learns endurance and how to use its wits.

There may be humans to come, the children of our children’s children, who have met a thousand ravens and know a thousand fables and are excited about the thousands of pieces of news they have learned from the bird kingdom.  

Some peregrine falcons are now famous. We know, for example, about a female on a church tower in Feucht, near Nuremberg. This has its own show on YouTube. In April this year, it brought its young a jay, which it proceeded to pluck live on camera.

Our house-painter’s nearest and dearest had to give the raven a name. It was distinct from all other ravens and became part of history, just like all the horses that took a general or a messenger to their graves have become part of history.

Why should I exclude the raven? Why does the idea of responsibility not apply to it? Why does thoughtfulness not apply to it? Why doesn’t generosity apply to it? Why are we allowed to offend it? Because it thinks in other terms? Would we like to be scared away simply because we can’t fly?

I know nothing I can say about ravens in general. So I don’t know how high up cheese rind comes on a raven’s menu.  

About Jacob I can testify: he did not disdain this rind. My mother preferred mild cheese, by the way, a variety called St. Paulin that she gave to me and whose soft rind I gave to Jacob.

A mid-European black-feathered raven with a proper beak that he could get at any food with. Black. Pure black. In his black eyes, the sun shone like a silver dot. This is the animal, this is the creature I’m talking about. If anyone has heard from Jacob, he should get in touch. 

LUKAS BÄRFUSS, born in Thun (Switzerland in 1971), dramatist, novelist, essayist and winner of numerous prizes including the Georg Büchner Prize 2019, is the curator and host for this year’s literature and dialogue series Human Nature. This asks what understanding of nature we actually use in our current discussions.

Translation: Tess Lewis