Bill Fuller, who was in many ways a kindred spirit, died in July, 2005. Iwrote the following essay about him, which was published in the December, 2007 issue of The Ester Republic.
Birds of a Feather
One day this past fall, as I was exiting my cabin, I heard an almost human-like chattering. I glanced at Rainbow, who was looking in the direction of the sound. A huge raven flopped its wings and settled precariously on the branch of a nearby birch tree. Rainbow and I raced down to the horse enclosure. The raven flew on ahead, settled on yet another branch, and again began chortling. I looked over at Siggi, Raudi, and Tinni, who had left their hay, moved to the fence, and were now watching the bird. Ten or so minutes later, he flew off. The dog grabbed a stick and raced around the yard, and the horses resumed eating. I filled water buckets and wondered, what, if anything was this bird trying to tell us?
I later mentioned the raven sighting to Pete, who, without missing a beat, said that the bird was Bill Fuller reincarnated. Pete’s statement was out-of-character because he doesn’t believe that there’s an afterlife. My response, that was a bird that had learned to mimic human beings, was equally out-of character because I do believe that there’s an afterlife. For example, my one horse Siggi is my Uncle Mac, reincarnated, and my other horse Raudi is Princess Di. Once, when Pete asked me how I knew this, I said that they told me so.
I finally concluded that Pete was right. An image came to mind, and this cinched it for me. Bill had bonded with the horses, and vice versa. When he visited, he (as a matter of routine) sauntered down to the horse barn, pulled out his harmonica, and played a few tunes. The horses walked over to where he was standing, and hung their heads over the gate. And so there they stood, ears perked, listening intently to his soliloquies. Bill, after playing a few tunes, would give each a scratch, and tell them how special they were.
I could have kicked myself for not having realized it was him, but I was glad that Pete was attuned to our friend’s presence. I have missed him dearly, since his death, in June, 2007. He was then a very young age 87. Bill and I connected on a very creative level. I know that I’m not the only one who can now say this. Bill had more close friends than anyone I knew. A case in point: his memorial service was held shortly after his passing, in July, 2007. It was a sunny, clear, warm day, the sort of day in which people in the Interior spend 364 days waiting for. Before the gathering, a handful of relatives and close friends climbed to the top of Sean McQuire’s Cloudberry Lookout, and each flung a cup of Bill’s ashes to the near-still wind. Then we filed downstairs, all the while, singing a song that Bill loved, the one about Dan Grogan.
I, with a few others, drifted back in the direction of the Fuller household. (On any given day, you can find a Cloudberry Lane resident or two moving, seemingly purposelessly, from one residence to another. I say seemingly, because it just looks this way. Though there is room for the unplanned visit or two, there is usually a destination in mind.) On my way over to the Fullers’, I turned the corner, and then stood transfixed. There, coming in my direction, were at least a dozen people. And behind them were a dozen more. And behind them, a dozen more. They were walking, riding bicycles, and riding in the shuttle vehicle being driven by shirtless Sam Viavant. All, young, middle aged, and old were coming to pay their respects to the man who brought each and every one of them great joy. Bill was a poet, musician, dancer, and actor. He was also a gifted story teller. Now it was their turn to tell what his 11 year-old granddaughter Jasmine called “Bill stories.”
I too stood before the group of 300 or so people and told a story. I chose to talk about our first meeting because I had to begin somewhere. It was a cold February day, and Bill was walking down the road past my cabin. My then-housemate pointed him out as “the crazy guy.” I ignored him, and stepped outside to greet this man. He was wearing a well-worn winter coat, large, thick home-made moose skin mittens, and a furry winter hat. This contrasted with his footwear, a pair of open-toed sandals. His intense blue eyes sought mine.
“Hi,” he said, brandishing a stick.
“Do you know any Japanese?” he asked.
“Well,” he said, as he drew a few slashes in the snow, “This means inscrutable man.”
Yes, this was the story I told, because at that moment, this was what came to mind. But my favorite story was about Bill’s interactions with the ravens. In the winter of his 85th year, he read Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven. And after, his conversations were sprinkled with anecdotal information about the ravens. He often called me on the phone and read me a passage or two. Essentially, Heinrich did a naturalistic study, and observed wolf-birds behavior in a variety of settings including the Northeastern U.S., Wyoming, and Alaska. Heinrich’s studies focused on how ravens communicate, collaborate, forage, and raise their young.
When Bill was in the process of reading this book, he called at odd hours, and passed on some of Heinrich’s insightful observations. “Say Alys,” he’d say, “did you know that wolves and ravens interact?” Or, “Alys, I was just reading about raven’s caching behaviors, and thought you might be interested in hearing about this.” I always responded to Bill in the affirmative, not just because the subject matter was interesting, but because I was honored to be the one that he’d chosen to converse with.
What came next did not surprise any of us who knew Bill well. He was so inspired by Heinrich’s findings that he too decided to study the raven. Heinrich began by becoming a surrogate parent to four ravens. He donned his climbing spurs, shuttled up a tree, put four offspring in his knapsack, and took them home. Bill took a less hands-on approach. He put a few pieces of stale bread on the window sill of his studio, set his chair next to the window, and watched as the birds first alighted, then took to the air with their find. Bill next drove down to the Fairbanks Food Bank and brought back a cardboard box of discards. The birds took to the food, as did the neighborhood dogs, one of whom was seen running off with a jelly donut.
The Cloudberry residents were dismayed by Bill’s actions because the animals (both domestic and wild) made a mess of things. Bill ignored his family and friend’s pleas, and for the rest of the winter, continued to feed the birds. He left well enough alone when, finally, his attention turned to other matters. Other matters included a Shakespeare play; he needed to memorize his lines.
I, like others, feared that Bill’s raven obsession was a harbinger of encroaching senility. My concerns were put to rest shortly after a mid-December Cloudberry Lane visit with Bill. Bill, was bipolar and prone to extreme mood swings. When he was up, he was giddy and fast-moving. When he was down, he was somber and slow-moving. This, I knew was one of his down times. I followed behind him as we slowly climbed the stairs to his study. He pointed to a nearby spruce tree. There sat a raven, preening itself.
“I wish sometimes that I could turn into a raven and just fly away.” Bill said.
I knew right then that Bill wasn’t losing it. Rather, he was making an attempt to connect with the animal that was his totem. Bill was also a trained researcher, who, like the raven, was interested in all that was going on around him. I left his study sensing that his fascination with these birds was related to his desire to make a peaceful, otherworldly transition. Bill’s transition was the antithesis of what he, the rest of us wanted. He died of respiratory related complications in the Fairbanks hospital.
We really don’t know where our spirits go
when we die, or if they take on another form. This is, and probably always
will be, open to conjecture. And so, I will never know for sure if this
raven was Bill, coming back to tell me something. I’m going to believe
what I want to believe, that Bill is a raven and is making the rounds.
It does not matter to me if he returns—it was quite enough to realize
that he is where he wants to be and is doing what he thinks he needs to
be doing. He is no longer an inscrutable man: rather, he is now an inscrutable