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Pre-Amble

How I do love ravens! At once the most clever, adaptable and confident of birds and the most joyful heralds of death. Like Otis and me, ravens perceive themselves as far too handsome and wise for their humble lot in life as scroungers, kidnappers of robin chicks and carrion eaters. Yet they, like O and me, don’t merely endure but always find ways to enjoy. What most humans view as hardship, ravens see as play. Everywhere good I go, from Alaska to Mexico, ravens are there.

Even so—this late in the day, this deep into winter—these gregarious birds should by now have retreated to their nocturnal roosts to perch on limbs like so many lumpy black leaves, feathers fluffed for warmth, among the sheltering boughs of Douglas fir or ponderosa. Suddenly, it occurs to me that these preeminent scavengers may have been feasting late on a holiday gift of frozen flesh. Dead elk or deer? Dead coyote? Dead …?

Winter: the dying time of year.

I hurry over to investigate. Approaching the spot where the birds had been ganged on the ground I find … nothing.

Who knows? Who gives a flapping croak? Not Otis, who has already whiffed some new and intriguing scent and is off hounding after it, headed conveniently down-mountain, the way we need to go. With twilight fading fast I turn and follow his lead, the prints of my big insulated rubber boots shortcutting Otis’s switchbacking slashes in the snow, like a drunken slalom skier. Dogs, like preachers, politicians and real estate whores, never run straight unless they’re being chased. But Otis has disappeared, coursing far ahead. Perhaps he’s cut the pungent trail of a pine marten, like the one he and Caroline saw on this morning’s walk together. In fact, Caroline admitted to having seen the sleek, cat-sized, tree-climbing, rodent-hunting weasel only after Otis had tracked its scent to the base of a tree and his animated excitement, urgent whines, and upward panting stare had lifted her gaze away from its normally grounded fix. While a hunter, like me, peers up and away, scanning the horizon for broken hints of color, pattern or movement, Caroline, a gentle gatherer, focuses closer at foot, stalking wildflowers, mushrooms, animal spoor and other rooted prey. Alone, each of us is half blind. Together, we see near and far.

No matter. Wherever my dog-son has gotten off to, or why, he is out of my sight—an intolerable breach of Petersen doggy etiquette. I refuse to yell, clap or wolf-whistle in the woods, any of which would rudely shatter the tranquility I come here for, disturbing the critters and destroying the very treasures I seek. Instead, I stop and peer around—waiting, watching, straining my ears into the ringing silence for the rhythm of panting breaths, the soft thuds of paws on the snow. I chuckle out loud when I catch myself sniffing the air, as if I were a dog or a bear. This thought, in turn, reminds me of Dersu Uzala, the charismatic wild-man protagonist of Russian explorer V.K. Arseniev’s 1910 classic adventure memoir, Dersu the Trapper, a mostly true story beautifully made into the 1975 Academy Award–winning film Dersu Uzala by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Dersu is an aging aborigine of a dwindling hunter-gatherer tribe, the Goldis, who are animistic (nature worshipping) foragers of the Manchurian taiga. The scene I’m recalling takes place one bad winter day while Dersu is out boar hunting with the captain. When Dersu misses an easy shot at an animal he can pungently smell but barely see, the old woodsman wails in pidgin Russian, “Capitan! My nose sees better than my eyes!” in sudden realization that he is going blind.

The point being that that’s the way our big boy Otis see his world: nostrils first. Could we dwarf-nosed human animals experience for just one hour the world as a dog, deer or bear perceives it—in shape-shifting layers of Technicolor scents, far more vivid and varied than even the most stunning sunset sky—that brief, epiphanous window of wonder would alter our outlook and actions forever. For all our manipulative cleverness, we really know so little of life.

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