The Real Hubba Hubba

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The nest in this tree is the very raven nest in this story.

 

Several years ago, when we were teaching on the Navajo Nation and living in a trailer on the Twin Lakes (Ext - Back BEST)campus of Twin Lakes ElementaryTwin Lakes (Int - Hallway2-5) School, a violent thunderstorm blew down a nest of baby ravens from the top of a hackberry tree. Carol grabbed up two of them, walking home from school. The neighbor’s dog killed the other two.

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Carol put them in an open box on the davenport and named the big one Hubba-Hubba, after our character in The Collector Witch, and named the little one Quoth. They were young enough that they were only about three fourths feathered out and Carol had to feed them baby parrot porridge with a teaspoon. And as it was when we raised our Amazon parrot, Carol’s background in psychology and mine in ethology made us careful not to read human motivation into their behavior. However we were interested in their inclination toward language, so we began at once treating them as though they harbored the same sort of undeveloped intelligence as a baby human.

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We made no attempt to teach them to talk. That is, we did not endlessly repeat phrases over and over to them nor drill them in any sort of way. What Carol has done every single evening since, before switching off the lights for the night, is spend some time scratching their heads and talking to them.

ravenL0405_468x312It was soon impossible to keep them in the box, so we transferred them to a large plastic P12307407pet carrier with a welded wire door. We kept them on the kitchen table. We handled them frequently and talked to them, but outside of squawks and groans, we heard nothing out of them for better than two months. Soon they began picking out large pieces of their cedar bedding, trimming them and using them as wedges and levers to force open the door of their carrier. Just as we were recovering from the shock of their doing this, one of them declared, “Fuck you!” as they scratched about in their new bed of cedar chips. The other one replied, “Ass hole! Ass hole!”

This certainly stunned us. We had not once heard a single word nor any single attempted word out of either of them prior to this. And neither one of us had ever used language like ravens1this around them. What they could have heard on an isolated occasion or two was one of us telling the other about our day at school, including (we assume) the foul speech of our students. In a few days we were astounded once more when we heard Hubba Hubba say, “Help me get this door open.”

This was not at all like parrots. Not only was there no endless practice leading up to the utterance of this sentence, it was as perfectly enunciated as if it were spoken by some human. We began keeping them in a chicken wire pen outside in the daytime. The next time I heard “Help me get this door open,” I rushed to the window to find Quoth watching  Hubba Hubba as he pecked in the dirt under the wire gate.

One day I was very upset, tramping about the trailer, raving. As I was calming down, Quothe said, “Tom! What’s wrong?”

196570606_fd127bc7eaOver the next very few months, they developed nearly all of the words and sentences given below. However, during the last couple of years we were out west, we seldom heard anything new out of them. During our first year in Kentucky, we discovered Hubba Hubba 15327478giving deliveries where he not only spoke in his own voice, but also talked in Quoth’s voice to make replies. Had Quoth quit talking? We were trying to find out when she vanished for good from their pen outside.

Since then, Hubba Hubba takes spells in the late afternoon saying over and over, “Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello…” or, “What’s your problem? What’s your problem? What’s your problem…?” which he articulates as well as ever. He has begun using our names, but they are very difficult to understand, with “Carol” coming out as “Coah” or “Hoh,” and “Tom” sounding like “Hom,” though “Quoth,” which he has said from the beginning, comes out quite well. He asks for food by saying, “Want some,” and when we ask him what he wants, he may occasionally reply, “Want some food,” or “Want some water.”

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Perhaps ravens are best at learning to articulate during some period of readiness, late in their development and any later verbal learning is not something that they’re genetically programmed to do as easily. Who’s to say? We only have the one bird, and there is very little written on the subject, since any hint that some non-human could possibly have any degree of natural use of true language is still largely regarded as heretical.

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Here are the words Hub uses. They are not listed in nice columns because of the contrary behavior of this website: a, all, am, are, ass, awk (spoken), boy, Carol (very poorly pronounced), door, food, fuck, get, go, going, good, hello, help, here, hmmm, hole, how, Hub, I, is, matter, me, open, out, problem, Quoth, right, some, that, the, this, to, Tom (very poorly pronounced), want, water, what, you, your.

Here are his phrases: All right.   Awk! Awk! (spoken, as humans would 24OBOX1-articleLargepronounce it)   Carol! (very poorly pronounced)   Hello.   Hello how are you? Hello Quoth.   Help me get this door open.   Here’s one.  Where are you?  Hey Quoth.   Hmmm?   How are you?   How’r’you how are you? (run together)   Hub.   I’m a good boy. Hmmm?   I’m going to go out the door.   That’s a good boy. Hmmm?   Tom. (very poorly pronounced)   Want some.   Want some?   Want some food!   Want some water.   What’s the matter?   What’s your problem?

Our character Hubba Hubba in Good Sister, Bad Sister, The Collector Witch, Stone Heart and The Burgeoning is no raven at all, but a double yellow head Amazon parrot with enchanted interludes as a crow, not a raven.

If you’ve ever had the good fortune to keep a raven or a crow, we’d love to hear about it.

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Carol Marrs Phipps & Tom Phipps

Your Butt’s too Big

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Years ago, when I taught at Ch’ooshgai Community School on the Navajo Nation, the students there had a reputation for playing rough, but when it came to it, they had big hearts. Like students at all schools, they resented the Special Ed students for being given lighter work for the same grades. However when a little Down’s syndrome girl showed up at school, she became a celebrity.

Yvonne was one of the handful of students who stayed in the Special Ed room instead of attending at least some regular classes. In spite if this, like every other student in school, she was supposed to take her seat and stay there when she came to class, and that meant that she was supposed to be in her seat when the door was open and kids were in the hall.

That was an utter impossibility for Yvonne. She was endlessly in the doorway with her hopelessly smeared glasses, swinging her leg like a ballerina at the bar, waving and calling out cheerfully to the passing students. I would hear time and again from across the hall: “Yvonne! Where are you supposed to be?” and, “Yvonne, take your seat!” Kids liked her, even if they did call her names.

One day, she grandly sang out a little rhyme:
“Your butt’s too big, your butt’s too big,
No matter what you do, your butt’s too big…”

“Yvonne! Get to your seat, now!”

But before everyone was in class, I heard:

“Your butt’s too big, your butt’s too big,
No matter what you do, your butt’s too big…”

Soon, passing students were taking up the chant each time they saw her in the doorway. “Whose butt is too big?” became the burning student question. The Special Ed teacher’s? She’s got a big enough butt, they said. No. It had to be the old witch from the Office. Or was it a particular student? They would ask Yvonne.

And her reply was:
“Whose butt’s too big? Whose butt’s too big?
If you don’t know, your butt’s too big.
Your butt’s too big, your butt’s too big,
No matter what you do, your butt’s too big…”

One noon, Yvonne came marching down the hallway with all of the verve and poise of a first string cheerleader, followed by the entire student body, chanting at the top of their lungs, the kids near the walls pounding the locker doors in time:
“Your butt’s too big! your butt’s too big!
No matter what you do, your butt’s too big…!”

The following noon, the Special Ed door stayed closed. There was a brief interlude of students chanting: “Y-vonne! Y-vonne! Y-vonne! Y-vonne!” but every noon thereafter, the Special Ed door remained shut. Even so, I seldom heard a day go by without at least someone chanting a verse of Your Butt’s too Big, all the way to the end of the school year.

So in spite of the best efforts of Special Ed, Yvonne may well have become the most specially remembered of all the students in her class.

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Tom Phipps

Do We Have a Smoking Dragon?

            I used to teach at Ch’ooshgai Community School, a boarding school on the top of a mesa on the Navajo Nation. One spring morning when the students were in the hallway changing classes, one of the older boys began calling out: “Herald! Herald?” Soon there were others calling out to Herald, and in short order it became a daily routine during class changes. “Herald! Herald? Oh, Herald!”
            I had the older boy in one of my classes. “So, who’s Herald?” I said, looking up from my attendance sheet.
            He shrugged his shoulders and grinned, trading glances with other kids in the room, but he had nothing to say.
            I got the same response from other students when I asked, but the calling out to Herald was to last until the end of school. I kept my ears open. One day whilst the students were visiting quietly as they finished up an assignment, one of them said to another, “When he lands on the roof of the school, you’ll cry, Jerome.”
            “No way,” said Jerome. “You’ll cry when it thunders and you get all your stupid hair singed off, dumb ass.”
            “Who’s he?” I said, ignoring the profanity. “Are you two talking about Herald?”
            All I got were cherubic grins and shrugs. 
            I had repeated instances like this. Nobody would answer my questions, but I was beginning to piece together a great dragon of a beast with a twenty foot wingspan, able to set fire to things from the air. Could this be the fabled Thunderbird? No wonder no one would tell me. Outsiders were always making fun of their legends, and they weren’t about to give me the chance to.
            There were certain old people who swore that there was indeed a gigantic bird which flew up and down the Rockies before storms. Ornithologists scoffed at this of course, saying that somebody with binoculars would have seen it long before now. But could there ever have been? I well remember the bobcat that Dad shot in the chicken house which the Zoology professors insisted could not possibly have been there. I started doing some research. Soon I discovered Argentavis magnificens, a late Miocene monster of a bird with a 23 foot wingspan that weighed between 150 to 175 pounds, which flew the skies of Argentina, six million years ago.
            I finished my maté and went outside to a rock to eat my fry bread and mutton stew and to look out over the dry grass of the countryside. My head spun at the thought of it, as I sped south in my mind’s eye into a never-never age of pristine wonder, past the tall trees of the White Mountains, past meadows and upland hills, long before there ever was a Nogales, and on down the great mountain chain, all the way to the slopes of the Andes Mountains in Argentina, where the great Argentavis soared on the updraughts of a gathering storm, just like the dragons in Good Sister, Bad Sister, except that our dragons are rather more Jurassic, with bony tails and mouths full of teeth.     
Tom Phipps