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

Alaska Science Forum: Butterflies and ravens as poetic inspiration

Both poets and scientists are deep observers who interpret the world in different ways.

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.

“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.

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.

(from “Fish the Dead Water Hard,” published by Cirque Press)

* * *

“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


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,


as the purr of kittens

or cooing of doves,



like solemn black staring silence itself.

• 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 ned.rozell@alaska.edu is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

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

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

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