Down East 2013 ©
It must have seemed like the adventure of a lifetime: John and Colleen Marzluff, a young married couple, leave Arizona for the Maine woods to carry out postdoctoral studies of the raven with esteemed biologist Bernd Heinrich. They’ve got enough savings to get through that first winter, pending grant proposals to hopefully get them through the next three years, and faith that their research in Maine will launch their careers as field biologists. They rent a cabin in York Hill, sight unseen, that turns out to be so small that when the oven door is opened, it hits the bed frame — just enough room for them, their two dogs, Topper and Sitka, and their meager belongings. And they get right to work.
Dog Days, Raven Nights (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut; hardcover; 323 pages; $28) offers a gritty, engaging glimpse into the down-to-earth realities of the incipient career of a field biologist, as well as the emergence of a competitive dog-sled racer. Told in alternating journal entry style, this memoir also focuses on how two people “from away” find themselves immediately embraced and supported by a rural Maine community. This is the story of how, two decades ago, Maine shaped their life’s trajectory.
Raven research, sled dogs, and human relationships are interwoven themes in a narrative that presents a thick slice of this significant time in their lives. While thematic shifts, the back-and-forth narration, and the sheer number of people, dogs, and birds mentioned in the book sometimes become confusing, a map and Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book help, as do icons of a raven (for John) and a dog (for Colleen) to distinguish the speaker of each section. Throughout, the text is beautifully illustrated with Evon Zerbetz’s bold linocuts.
If the book were about ravens alone, it would still be fascinating to most. (Appendices provide additional information on the studies, ravens, and dogs for those who want more science.) We learn the intricacies of raven’s feeding habits and other behaviors, in addition to the challenges of building and stocking a giant raven aviary on a mountainside, tracking tagged birds, and hand-raising baby ravens. Relations with their mentor Heinrich become fraught with tension. The field research, primarily carried out by John after budget cuts leave Colleen without a paid role, require long hours observing ravens in all seasons, in sub-zero winter or blackfly summer, often at an open dump. They also spend a lot of time collecting carcasses for raven food. Studying wild ravens is not a glamorous job. Their story would certainly be less inspirational if John were not now a highly respected bird biologist himself.
Dogs are as integral to the book as ravens, as Colleen gets involved in dog training and sled-dog racing. The dogs, after all, have already been trained to pull building materials and carcasses up the hillside to the aviary. Despite cramped quarters that foster marital strife, and the burden of raising ten baby ravens that first winter, they decide to get more dogs (they eventually end up with five). Colleen begins showing her Siberian husky, Kenai, as well as fine-tuning dog sleds and traveling around northern New England to learn the finer points of competitive racing. The dog pack presents its own problems, from porcupine quills to lice. They often escape from their kennel and gobble down stashed meat meant for ravens, which results in their vomiting all over the tiny cabin. Kenai even kills one of their prized study birds. But through the dogs, Colleen finds her own mentor and focus.
For a couple of biologists plunked down in a remote part of Maine, the Marzluffs certainly find plenty to keep themselves occupied. And they’re never lonely. They are adopted from day one by the DiSotto family from Jay, who introduce them to the Maine way of life and how to cope with the vagaries of the weather. They also gain the support of their landlords next-door, Tom and Zetta Wojcik, and their three children. And there’s Heinrich, his students, other research assistants and volunteers, dog breeders and sled racers, and the local butchers, farmers, and game wardens who provide meat. Colleen says, “Much of my experience in Maine centered on the bridges the ravens and dogs allowed me to build to supportive and fun people.” Looking back more than twenty years later, she and John seem to have a renewed gratitude for the complex relationships they developed with humans, ravens, and dogs alike in those difficult but formative three years.