The Pull of the SkyOpen story
For thousands of years, humans have imagined what it would mean to view the Earth from celestial heights, raising the question of how to reconcile our bounded lives with our longing for the cosmos.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is Dean of Humanities at Arizona State University. He is widely published in the fields of medieval studies, monster theory, and the environmental humanities. His book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman received the 2017 René Wellek Prize in comparative literature from the American Comparative Literature Association. In collaboration with Lindy Elkins-Tanton he co-wrote the book Earth, a re-examination of our planet from the perspectives of a planetary scientist and a literary humanist. He is the co-author, with Julian Yates, of the book Noah’s Arkive: Towards an Ecology of Refuge.
Julian Yates is professor of English studies at the University of Delaware. He has written extensively on Medieval and Renaissance British Literature, literary theory, material culture studies, and questions of ecology / environmental humanities. His book Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance was a finalist for the Modern Language Association’s Best First Book Prize in 2003. He is the co-author, with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, of the book Noah’s Arkive: Towards an Ecology of Refuge.
Sophy Hollington is an illustrator and artist living in Brighton, UK. Much of her commercial work takes the form of relief prints, created using the process of lino-cutting. Her clients include: The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Wetransfer, The Wall Street Journal, Penguin, and Stylist Magazine.
In the face of present-day environmental catastrophe and social injustice, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Julian Yates examine the opposing narratives of survival in the story of Noah’s Ark.
The weather is about to change, portending disaster. A family takes shelter in a well-sealed home, having collected everything they will need to begin life anew. Strong walls offer security against a world ravaged by meteorological calamity. The survival of this small community is made possible only through the exclusion of those who have been left to the rising sea: the humans and the animals they could not or simply did not include. At last the relentless storms subside. When the waters retreat, the land has been washed clean. The family emerges to a bright new day, sealed with a rainbow, a future they could hardly have imagined when the Earth was in tumult.
This is the story of Noah and his ark, a tale of elemental catastrophe and human endurance, of diminished safeties, wide disasters, and conservation at high price. It’s also a narrative older than its recordation in the book of Genesis. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains a version in which the gods send the waters to drown the noise of ever-multiplying humans and the shipbuilder saves as many as he can fit aboard his vessel. Yet Noah’s tale of survival is the one that we cannot stop telling as the climate changes, a myth undergirding how we imagine our own perseverance within environments become hostile. A ship of preservation that endures the Flood easily becomes a starship, even Spaceship Earth, but it is still an ark that preserves a limited few. The biblical tale has become the structure of a recurring political story, enacted by nations that imagine they can enclose themselves through border walls, as if continents could be parceled into gated communities. The story of Noah and his kin is enacted in miniature by every family privileged enough to draw down the boundaries of their home in response to the threat of viral infection. So many tiny arks, secure against immigrants or viruses or sea surge. For better or worse, the myth of Noah and his vessel of restricted preservation offers our most enduring narrative of how to survive during climate change.
The story of the ark is familiar enough. A bearded patriarch builds a mighty ship at divine command. Animals enter two by two, lions mingling with zebras and colorful peacocks, a parade of all the world’s fauna. As the rain falls, the chosen community is snug against the storm. The world is in flood, but in the bosom of the ark there is peace. When the weather clears and the waves recede, all who were inside happily emerge upon a mountaintop. Those not admitted have vanished, as if they had never lived. The story ends with a dove, an olive branch, and a rainbow.
It’s hard not to fall in love with this ark and its promise of no future deluges, no catastrophes on the horizon, just landfall and a shimmering blue sky. Yet most of us recall this story not from Genesis, where the narrative is elliptical and complicated, but from the simplified version we pass along in picture Bibles and entertainments for children. It’s easy to forget the stranger biblical details, such as the advent of giants just as the story opens, or Noah’s strange silence when God announces his destructive plan. Easy to forget that a rainbow is a weapon made of weather, the kind of bow that shoots a lethal arrow, not the happy icon of stickers, emojis, Pride. Some of the animals admitted to the ark enter not two by two but seven by seven. These are the clean beasts, the ones to be sacrificed after the ark finds its landfall. Like all the conserved creatures, they spend long months on the ship as messmates and companions of Noah’s family, who, before the voyage (according to an enduring tradition), were vegetarians. After the Flood, all clean animals may be offered to God or consumed by humans, changing forever their relation to those with whom they once shared a home. Genesis states bluntly that henceforth animals will fear humans: “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered” (Gen. 9:2, AV). Noah’s first grateful sacrifice to God upon landfall includes every kind of clean animal and fowl, so some of the kin of the dove who brought back the olive branch were incinerated on that altar. Doves are clean beasts, unlike ravens.
Given the way the story concludes—with a settler-colonist community founded on ritual slaughter; a brave new world in which Noah is soon to get so drunk that he passes out naked, waking to curse one of his three children to eternal slavery; where no one seems to remember the lives of those who perished beneath the waves, and not a single woman bears a personal name—well, is it any wonder that the raven, when released from the ark to reconnoiter the world, never returns?
Time to leave.
Although Noah’s ark is loaded with all the world’s animals, only two beasts have a specific role to play, and they are both birds: dove and raven. Returning with the branch of an olive tree, the dove offers the promise of a dry new home. The raven is simply a raven. Both are necessary to Genesis, even as the raven finds itself all too readily rubbished by commentators who write it off as a defective dove, the bird that bungled the rainbow. Without the dove, there is no story: no promise of life returning to Earth, no landfall, no rainbow, no sacrifice, no covenant, no success for Noah and his ark (even if that success proves rather short-lived). But what is the role of the raven? Well, that is harder to say. This bird has other ideas, entering the narrative only to exit. Without its errant ways, there might be no point in trying to wrestle with the ark’s story of survival in the face of climate catastrophe.
The myth of Noah and his vessel of restricted preservation offers our most enduring narrative of how to survive during climate change.
The fate of the dove is to become not only a messenger and a sacrifice but also an enduring symbol. The dove is transformed out of its animal particularity and subsumed into a story about men and women and their relation to divinity—an allegorically enhanced pigeon. The raven, on the other hand, goes its own way. It refuses to participate in anthropocentric reductions. The raven has other ideas, other places to be. The raven demonstrates that even though the stories we tell about catastrophe can seem inevitable in their conclusions, other stories—many, many stories, in fact—are possible. The raven’s tale is never one, but several. To follow the raven’s flight is to make peace with the unpredictable, to concede that there are many ways of living in the difficult world, plots we may never know or fully understand. Better still, to follow the raven is to understand that there is no single arc to this story, that the stories we tell of endurance during ecological catastrophe—if they are to do more than ensure the safety of small collectives—must be manifold.
We are writing a book about how Noah’s ark has been central in our imagination of catastrophic climate change across the millennia. The minimal frame and detail of the biblical narrative, we argue, demands that readers think hard about the difficulties of preserving a community against changes in the weather, about who gets included and who ends up on the wrong side of the door, about how the threat of climate change is experienced differently by different groups of people. (Is it any wonder that the dove who loves the ark is white and the raven who finds the place a home not worth the return is black?) Try to imagine what building an ark actually entails and the magnitude of the task, as well as the impossible choices we would have to make. Think of what it is like to be inside that ark, months and months at sea. This is why, across the ages, the story has invited retelling and reinvention. The story of Noah and the ark remains something for all of us to think about as we contemplate an uncertain future that will certainly be filled with ecological disruption.
The tale we are following in this essay is about charismatic doves and earthbound ravens. It’s about the invitational gaps in the Genesis account: missing pieces of the biblical story that over the centuries have invited readers to fill in and then inhabit the challenges of living with the change in the weather, of dwelling fully within instead of floating above the injustices of life during catastrophe. All kinds of stories that do not appear in Genesis have been loaded into the ark over the centuries. Some of them are about what gets left out but keeps circling back, surfacing again, refusing to drown, maybe even finding in the lost world the material to build something better, some shelter regardless or in spite of arks. For us, the raven embraces a future different from what the dove heralds, an alternative story that may, from time to time, give hope of survival to those not chosen for inclusion, to those who cannot glide away from violence; an invitation to imagine a world of widened refuge instead of the severe closure of arks. What happens to those who were never promised a rainbow?
The dove is an ordinary bird most frequently encountered in the form of an urban scavenger, the pigeon. But the dove is also a creature that tends to fly above its mundane habitat, transformed from animal into radiant white allegory. In the Noah story, this transfiguration is aided by a Christian system of symbolism that sees in doves the sacred and abiding form of the Holy Spirit. When Noah releases his animal scout “to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground” (Gen. 8:8, AV), the dove winging its dutiful way over the measureless sea recalls for some interpreters the Spirit of God moving across the waters (Gen. 1:2), as well as the Spirit of God descending like a dove upon their baptized savior (Matt. 3:16, John 1:32). In such readings, the Jewishness of the Hebrew bible is simultaneously redeemed, transformed, and left behind, since it now exists to prefigure Christian tales: dove to Holy Ghost, olive branch to sign of peace, flood to universal baptism, ark to cross or sepulchre or church (or all three). The animality of the dove is also redeemed, transformed, since the bird becomes a symbol, not a beast; a human universal, not a creaturely particular.
This all-embracing mode of reading, launched by Saint Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century—in which the specific and the time-bound are transported out of any cultural, historical, and narrative context to become cosmic and eternal—is capable of catching up anything, from animals to objects to humans. Sometimes a person will transcend their familiar home, rise above their known world, above the very Earth, and find themselves transfigured out of their imperfect humanity into some radiant allegory. Noah and his family will be converted by such an impulse into symbols of the church, each member obedient, expectant, saved: a family of exemplary obedience enfolded by the wings of the sacred dove. Noah prefigures Christ, perfect in his obedience to his Father. Jewish interpreters, on the other hand, wondered why Noah did not—like Cain before him and Moses and Abraham after—argue with God, attempt to talk him out of his severe punishments. Abraham’s reaction to the declared destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is to challenge God by asking, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23, ESV). That question has an immediate effect. Similarly, Moses convinces God on Mount Sinai not to destroy the people of Israel after the episode of the golden calf.
Not so with Noah. Yet everything about his story is transformed into a symbol for something else: narrative into allegory and enduring myth. Everything about the Noah story too easily becomes eternal: dove, rainbow, ark, the saved and the damned, sacrifice, covenant. Everything becomes part of the same, singular story—except for the raven, who simply leaves. Noah opened the window of the ark, sent the corvid forth, and off it went.
How difficult it must be to find yourself the lowly raven in Noah’s tale, left out from allegorical uplift, a creature among other creatures, tracing an animal path. Or, perhaps, how liberating to be left behind by a story intent on an elsewhere that demands as its price of admission the abandonment of the particular, the personal, the carnal, the mundane. Although the Hebrew word used in Genesis implies that the bird never completes its mission but goes perpetually back and forth from the ark (Gen. 8:7), most interpreters of the Noah story hold that the reconnaissance raven never returns to life with Noah and his family. Although we are not told why, we can well imagine. What scavenger would not, in the carnage of the deluge, find a paradise? When the dove is sent to undertake the labor of the wayward raven, the second searcher returns with a sign of hope for human futurity, “a freshly plucked olive leaf” (Gen 8:11, ESV). In his Four Birds of Noah’s Ark, a book of prayers published in 1608 to console London’s citizens while the city weathered the plague, playwright Thomas Dekker writes the raven out of existence completely. He begins his address by stating that “the Dove was the first bird that being sent out of Noah’s Ark brought comfort to Noah.” The raven is a false start, a failed attempt, an errant path rather than a keen narrative arc. The raven transcends nothing. It remains bound to the world, remains resolutely within catastrophe. It offers no comfort and so might as well be erased. Herald and harbinger, the radiant dove, on the other hand, enables the story’s progress toward the rainbow. Cue the swelling music. Meanwhile, somewhere in the world, the raven—this dark bird who loves utopias of its own making, realms indifferent to the divine—still wings its way.
Everything about the Noah story too easily becomes eternal: dove, rainbow, ark, the saved and the damned, sacrifice, covenant. Everything becomes part of the same, singular story—except for the raven, who simply leaves.
The Queen Mary Psalter (fig. 1, circa 1310–1320) offers one of our favorite depictions of the ark at sea. A psalter is a collection of psalms, a book of prayers for its owner to keep at hand to meditate upon the difficulties of the world. This book may have been created for a royal patron, as its Latin psalms are preceded with 223 scenes from what Christians call their Old Testament, ornately illustrated and captioned in French. The story of the ark is told across five illustrations, most of which depict multiple scenes at once. (Medieval manuscript illustrations are often more like movies, with multiple frames unfolding in the same space, rather than photographic images, capturing a single moment in time.) The visual narrative begins with a picture of an angel telling Noah to build the ark and culminates in a bustling image of the ark at sea. Aboard the vessel, Noah appears twice. On the left, he stands on deck grasping two birds: a lithe dove and a heavy raven (une columbe and un corbeu, as the text beneath reads). Both birds look forward and upward with him, the trio filled with a shared expectancy of something better to come, some event that will at long last enable their voyage to conclude.
On the righthand side of the ark, time has passed. Noah appears within a window, leaning out with raised hand, eager for his bird’s return. The ship’s enormous rudder looms to his left, suggesting counterintuitively that this toy of the waters can be steered, leaving open the question of control and destination. The dove now wings its way back to Noah’s hand, the expected olive branch clasped in its beak. The raven, meanwhile, has decided to go off alone, ignore Noah’s demands, and satisfy its own creaturely appetites. The raven curves into the snug bend of the upper left corner, king of an island where fronds that should have been plucked and returned to Noah sprout luxuriantly. This fowl is too busy to remember the charge of its mission. It plunges its beak deep into the eye of a horse’s head, detritus of the deluge stranded along an emerging shore. Given the life that the raven can make for itself in this disaster-borne utopia, why would the bird return?
The raven’s story is about waywardness, about being peripheral to the story and making the best of it, finding yourself unable or unwilling to submit to the commands of others, to participate in expected conclusions. The dove and the raven inhabit the same line of flight. Yet the dove reduces its possibilities to one, following the finite course, while the raven flies otherwise. They fly two trajectories: the dove’s forth and back, which enables movement toward completion of the narrative arc; and the raven’s veering into a space of no return—a disaster-spawned paradise that provides everything the creature needs, but nothing to trigger further travels (it will certainly not be winging home with chunks of scavenged flesh). We have nothing against doves, or against pigeons, for that matter. The dove has to work hard, to the point of exhaustion. But the dove has also benefitted by becoming an integral actor within a biblical narrative, whereas the raven’s fate is never narrated.
By the early fourteenth century, numerous depictions existed of the raven delighting in the eyes of the dead—illustrations with no biblical authority offering an expected story all the same. The raven is an actor who in a time of catastrophe has gone off script or whose script is all its own. It has been so emphatically itself for so long now that its tale has become a supplemental reality: it would be strange at this point in history to depict a raven who had not found an island and a feast, as if the dove had never grabbed an olive branch. The two birds work together, in contrasting parallel. Each is made to open a familiar world.
The ark and its many passengers are all doves. Noah, his family, and the animals are safe aboard, on allegorical autopilot. They will have been eager to arrive at their mountain and for the rainbow to shine. Genesis attests to as much. But this psalter image is as full of corvid tarrying as it is dovish destination, fated denouement abandoned for dangerous attunement to the mess of the world. The illustration contains more symbolic ravens than doves, more errant or extraneous actors than figures in harmony with the biblical narrative. Around the psalter’s ark, animal corpses float on a transparent sea, unmoored from gravity, whirled with arresting tranquility. This ocean is an archive of stories not related in Genesis, so full of narrative jetsam that the ship seems destined never to find its mountain. Among the dead beasts is a brightly painted bird, upside down and drowned, a reminder that the dove and raven have kin who were not admitted to the shelter they enjoyed. Perhaps that is why the dove is so obedient: it realizes with gratitude the magnitude of Noah’s choice, the unlikelihood of having been among the conserved. Perhaps that is why the raven is errant: it realizes the price of salvation, the legions denied accommodation so that some pairs could be housed.
Two men swim in the water, not yet become the carrion into which their animal companions have been transformed. A long history exists of imagining the plight of those left behind when the ark sails. Even the oldest surviving illustrated biblical codex, the sixth-century Vienna Genesis, depicts a pyramid-shaped ark sailing away from men and women clinging to rocks, about to drown. Such scenes have no precedent in the Genesis Flood narrative, which has nothing to say about anyone not within Noah’s immediate family. Unlike those not admitted to the ark in the Vienna Genesis illustration—or in the myriad other images across the millennia that depict families huddled as the waters rise or already drowned beneath the surge—these two men seem fairly at ease. It is strange to see living people outside the ark this late in the Flood, since the rains have ceased and the boat is hurrying toward Mount Ararat. No intimation is given that this day is their last, and yet how could it not be so? The ark is limned by suffering to come, even as the waters recede. Their presence also cannot help but recall the depiction of Noah loading the ark in a previous folio, where he is forcibly carrying up the ladder into the ship a son who kicks as he looks back at his family and the animals still outside. There is a long history of artistic and literary depictions of not wanting to board the ark, of not being willing to leave the world to drown; this reluctance is typically embodied in Noah’s wife rather than his son.
But that is not all. Directly beneath the boat, the devil emerges from a small hole, drill in hand. Now that the story of the ark is coming to its close, Satan is swimming to freedom, intent on ensuring that the world will not lack the unruly plots to which he dedicates himself, the deviant stories that triggered the Flood’s arrival in the first place. The tail of a snake has been pulled through the hole that the devil has fashioned, the poor creature now an unwitting plug so that the ark does not sink. Strange to think that the devil cares for those on board, but stranger still to contemplate a devil who would want a world not sufficiently stocked with a diversity of actors for the dramas that he loves to stage. We do not know the precise origin of the story of Satan secretly sheltered aboard the ark, but it seems to have been included in part to explain why the world is just as wicked after the deluge as ever it was before.
Write off the raven and we write off the capacity of stories to work out differently, the possibility that we might all learn something unexpected, unscripted.
Perhaps, too, this stowaway tale conveys a desire to not leave one of the most interesting characters in Christian biblical storytelling to drown. Their eyes forever gazing heavenward, Noah and his dove are oblivious to what unfolds in the waters. The devil, the carrion, and the swimming figures are all part of the raven’s world, a space that, once noticed, disturbs perspective and trajectory, a world or archive replete with suffering but also thrumming with life. Denouement gets postponed in the process, the repeopling of the land traded for an embrace of the complexities of being at sea. The ages-long trajectory of Noah’s ark, rudder forcibly set in the direction of landfall, rainbow, and covenant, has been constantly disrupted by the raven and its kin.
Ethologists who dislike sociobiological allegories that make the animals whose behavior they study boringly predictable like to tell stories about ravens. Better yet, they like to tell stories about fellow ethologists telling stories about ravens. Vinciane Despret begins her article on the “The Enigma of the Raven” with the following anecdote from Rémy and Bernadette Chauvin’s Le modèle animal:
Some years ago, the American Skinnerians [followers of B. F. Skinner], who had heard tell somewhere that there existed other birds than the eternal pigeon, tried to replace it with the great raven. Without success. The raven, who found the situation in a Skinner Box profoundly absurd, did not at all wish to push on the levers at the command of the little lights that illuminated or for any other signal. Instead, it successfully used its enormous beak to completely dismantle the apparatus. This behavior was judged to be unamerican and everyone went back to pigeons.1
The raven’s failure as a test subject appeals to Despret and the Chauvins—much as they do to us, along with subsequent generations of animal ethologists—because they represent the failure of imagination on the part of the bird’s human observers. A similarly appealing failure unfolds, we think, through the raven in the story of Noah and the ark. Write off the raven and we write off the capacity of stories to work out differently, the possibility that we might all learn something unexpected, unscripted. Even pigeons, allegorically enhanced or ordinary, don’t really pull the expected levers all the time—or they pull them ironically, under duress, conscripted as they have been to serve in successive theological and sociobiological allegories. Ravens offer something else, the chance for a story to differ from itself, to become something else entirely—makers as they are of disaster utopias, at home with the unpredictable.
We end with another medieval image (fig. 2) and another medieval story, but it’s not a tale we’re used to hearing. Atop a towerlike ark of brick, battered by a roiling sea, perhaps unknown to both Noah and the dove, is the raven, still, alert, regarding everything. “This is Noah in the ark and the dove resting on it,” reads the Hebrew text just below, leaving out the illustration’s third character. Keen-eyed and unmoved, this is the raven we have been seeking, the one we thought was gone from the ark, gone from the very frame of the picture, displaced by the dove to some other domain where the errant bird could find its only home. This raven stands still, serene, the pinnacle of the scene. It is not going anywhere. This raven remains intimate to the unfolding narrative. Despite what the inscription declares, the dove does not rest upon the ark; the ark sustains the raven.
Histories of medieval western Europe are replete with the violence that too often structured relations among faith communities, especially those who lived in proximity: Muslim, Jew, Christian, pagan. Salo Wittmayer Baron described as “lachrymose history” the repeated tendency to narrow the Jewish past and narrate it only as a chronicle of suffering and endurance, yet when it comes to Jewish-Christian relations in the late Middle Ages, it is difficult to avoid stories filled with tears. Medieval France (where the remarkable depiction of the ark in figure 2 was produced) witnessed much Christian brutality against Jewish residents. But sometimes religious and cultural differences were not impediments to cohabitation, collaboration, creation. This image of Noah’s ark as durable tower is from a compendium now known as the North French Hebrew Miscellany. The manuscript is the product of a time and place where a Jewish scribe and a group of Christian artists could produce together a work of ravishing beauty. Yael Zirlin has argued that some of the illustrations derive from workshops in Saint-Omer, while others may be the handiwork of artists associated with the royal household who were working in Paris. Such workshops had fashioned dazzling Christian art and were now laboring to create intricate miniatures for a manuscript that contained a Haggadah, gematria, Jewish law texts, and Hebrew calendars. Not all that long after the North French Hebrew Miscellany was completed, most Jews were exiled from or exterminated within France, their thriving communities having become a swiftly receding memory. Yet this manuscript tells a tale rather different from the stories we are used to hearing from late-thirteenth-century Europe, narratives full of massacres, public disputes, forced conversion, and the circulation of the blood libel.
When the great biblical commentator Rashi was born in the French city of Troyes in 1040, about a thousand Jewish men and women lived in that bustling place. Troyes became a renowned center of Jewish learning. Rashi loved stories from Genesis, including the raven and the ark. His erudite commentaries are studied to this day. Yet by the early years of the fourteenth century, no Jews remained in Troyes. The medieval period is filled with such histories, vibrant communities destroyed at zealous hands. Yet this Noah’s ark, seemingly made of a substance used to build walls just like those surrounding Eden—an ark affixed to an immobile tower affixed to a mountain—is likely the work of Christian illustrators directed by a Jewish scribe named Benjamin. With its dark-feathered guardian, this Noah’s ark opens the possibility of a future that did not arrive but could have, a future of hospitality and cohabitation, of ravens with doves. The manuscript does not offer some kind of idealized, peaceful community. Utopias are seldom so perfect. In his text, Benjamin labels the Christian St. Peter as “Peter the Ass,” while the Christian artists conspicuously omit from the manuscript some of the most important moments in Jewish history: Moses at Sinai, the defeat of Haman. There is evidence of interfaith struggle throughout its pages, but also the co-creation of something ravishing. The past is full of such stories almost lost, nearly erased by time’s surge and flood, stories that should have drowned and yet endure. Noah’s ark is crammed with wayward tales, raven stories that move like vortices, not flows; countercurrents in history’s dovelike course.
Medieval flood stories, visual and narrative alike, sometimes reveal a complicated Christian and Jewish neighboring that tells a rather different tale from the narrative in which the Flood of an Old Testament is allegorized into New Testament baptism, the ark becomes the church, the dove becomes the Holy Spirit, and Jewish content is left behind as too literal or carnal or simply out of date. A small window into a world of interfaith collaboration and community (no matter how fraught) is opened by this illustration of Noah’s ark, one of the very few examples to have survived from the thirteenth-century Ashkenazic world. This ark is brick, walled like Eden—but it is not a paradise set apart from the turbulence of the world. Note the fish in the turbulent water and the future-looking Noah, the serene raven and the reliable dove. Who knows what other stories it is possible to tell if we loosen our expectations, taking our cue from a raven who has other ideas than pulling the same old boring lever in the Skinner box–ark? There is no ark without the raven. Here is the raven. Always the raven.
It is, however, in the nature of ravens to leave, to fly off, away, or to remain in plain sight, emphatically unavailable in their presence, unless they change their minds. As we warned you at the beginning of this essay, following the raven would not be easy. Hence the need to follow at the remove provided by the host of dark-feathered stories we have assembled. Time, then, perhaps to part company. Truth be told, that is what the dove does as well: after it returns with the olive branch, Noah releases the dove a third time, and it does not return; it follows the raven into life without Noah, life without the ark. When the raven and the dove leave—the allegorical skies finally clearing, so it seems—what, then, is it time to do? Is it time, as in the Genesis story, for sacrifice, imploring God to remember us: rainbow, landfall, covenant? Or is it time to leave, to head out into the gaps and the complexities of our story, accepting that that’s the world we have always shared? Time, perhaps, to jump into the Flood?
Caw. The raven recruits us to the unpredictable, the inevitable, the possibility of a shared world.
For thousands of years, humans have imagined what it would mean to view the Earth from celestial heights, raising the question of how to reconcile our bounded lives with our longing for the cosmos.