Terre Haute Living January/February 2019 - Page 50

BOOKS HAUTE REVIEW DAVID KITE This one’s for the birds C hristopher Skaife is the Ravenmas- ter. Officially, he’s a Yeoman Ward- er of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and clipping, thus robbing the ravens of their ciless and, fittingly, ability to fly. Christopher’s philosophy ravenous. is different. Though he still clips the In his time pro- ravens’ wings, he does so only enough to a member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the observ- tecting and observ prevent their flying away. The birds are Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. This is quite the ing the ravens at the still able to take flight for short distanc- Tower, Christopher es, which allows them the benefit of has discerned many mouthful, and certainly something to burnish a resume. His role as a Yeoman Warder is to care for the ravens residing at the Tower of London, and as he tells his story in his memoir, “The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London,” it is clear that “caring” for the ravens is to him more than simply providing for their basic needs. As a Yeoman Warder, he says, “In princi- ple we’re responsible for looking after any prisoners at the Tower and safeguarding the Crown Jewels. In practice, we act as tour guides and as custodians of the rituals of the Tower.” However, it’s far from a cushy job. To become a Yeoman Warder is an honorable assignment that requires over 20 years of unblemished military service. The book is very much a tour; of the Tower, of the ravens, and of Christopher’s experiences that brought him to the Tower. His tone is com- fortable and conversational, and he success- fully draws in the reader with his affectionate descriptions of both the ravens and the Tower’s history. exercise, as well as the ability to escape of their habits, in immediate danger, such as foxes, and oper- particular their oper occasionally, the other ravens. Descriptions of the Tower and the ravens are interspersed with snippets of history that provide a bit of useful background about why things are the Read it! ating procedures when “The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London,” is available at the Vigo County Public Library. conniving to steal food from Tower visitors, which Christopher describes very similarly way they are at the Tower; about how to his experiences the Tower began both as a function- in the military: “To al fortress and a blunt if impressive watch a raven at work expression of power, at times a prison scavenging food is or armory, and for several centuries, even a to witness something very much like a mili- royal zoo. tary operation.” What they can’t take by sheer The Tower is a place of long history and su- perstition, and is not without its share of ghost stories and legends. Are any of them actually audacity, they plot ways to create openings and opportunities for petty larceny. He has also found that, “they’re surprisingly true? In Christopher’s opinion, “if you want to like us: they are versatile, adaptable, and om- know the actual history of the Tower, don’t ask nivorous; they are capable of great cruelty and a Yeoman Warder, go and read a book. If you great kindness; and on the whole they manage want to know about history, read some history. to get along with one another . . . In learning If you want to hear a story, come on a tour.” about the ravens, I have discovered a lot about Like all tour guides, the Yeoman Warders are what it means to be a human.” There are seven ravens residing at the not there to be history professors but to bring Tower. Being corvids, they are arguably some history alive, so being exactly true to historical suited to a leisurely afternoon with a warm of the most intelligent birds on the planet, and, accuracy misses the point. drink. being intelligent, they make no bones about While very briefly describing his daily their desires or opinions, either of themselves routines, Christopher explains what ravens eat, or of others. as well as generally how the food is prepared. They are what they are, and they are not the least embarrassed about expressing them- selves. Legend holds that if they ever leave the Tower then the kingdom will crumble. This is another of Christopher’s duties: to He even mentions the best way to prepare your own meal before feeding the ravens. Step one: Don’t! Food preparation for the ravens can be unsettling, as much of the Tower ravens’ diet consists of things soaked in blood. ensure that the ravens stay. Previous Raven- A raven is very possessive of its meals, and to masters had accomplished this though wing watch one eat is to watch an animal that is mer- 50 Terre Haute Living • January/February 2019 A welcoming and companionable story well David Kite is a librar- ian at the Vigo Coun- ty Public Library. An avid student of his- tory, he also devotes his time to pursuing Renaissance martial arts and to trail riding with his horse, Stormy. He can be reached at dkite@ vigo.lib.in.us. tribstar.com/terrehauteliving