Ravens like this one inspire people to respond to their calls, and sometimes to pick up a pencil. Photo by Ned Rozell

Stories about ravens and chickadees and wolves result in more responses in my inbox than others. The past few weeks — after one story about winter butterflies and another about raven talk — have been predictable in that way, but unpredictable in another.

Two writers have sent me poems about those creatures. I read the poems without distraction. They made me think about how both poets and scientists are deep observers who interpret the world in different ways.

A Compton tortoiseshell butterfly emerges from winter hibernation with a suddenness that often surprises people who thought the insect was dead. Photo by Ned Rozell

“Genus Nymphalis,”

By Eric Heyne, UAF English professor: 

“Don’t step on it!” my daughter warned as we lugged in the grocery bags from the garage. It looked like a leaf, orange and brown, ragged-edge wings. She brought it in for her “collection,” until it moved, morphed into a pet.

Ignorant of the secret life of butterflies, I had no idea they survived the cold in Fairbanks; this winter-wakened Compton Tortoiseshell (we googled it) was as big a surprise as a yeti would have been.

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It lapped up orange juice from my daughter’s hand, flew around her room and returned to that outstretched palm, emerging by day and going back into the butterfly house by night. A domesticated insect!

Even knowing the end was near did not prevent the tears a few days later — not hers but mine, ashamed to weep for a bug. 

“Voices of Ravens,”

by Frank Keim, retired Alaska Bush schoolteacher         

Marshall, Alaska, December 1990

“Did you know that Ravens coo? Well, they do, and they cackle too,” I heard myself whisper, smiling, as I straddled the trail with my skis, arms akimbo on metal poles, searching up through the broken nebula of naked branches and blue dusk for their confraternity of cackling voices, muffled by wind soughing in tall cottonwoods and hard snow pelting wrinkled bark and my own furrowed face every now and then.

I was returning from the village spring where I filled my bottles with sweetwater and took a few moments to just listen to these rowdy nighttime friends and their raucous togetherness, sounding now like a jeering mob, or the panic of a henhouse, then as the purr of kittens or cooing of doves, and suddenly, like solemn black staring silence itself.

“Genus Nymphalis” is from “Fish the Dead Water Hard,” published by Cirque Press.

Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell [email protected] is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

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