Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wildness Incarnate

To Aldo Leopold and me, spring means sandhill cranes. Leopold characterized their noisy annual arrival as “bugling the defeat of the retreating winter.” A few March’s ago, I got to hear their cries in person on a trip to Nebraska, where a half-million of the migrating birds gather at a mid-continental pit stop in wetlands along the Platte River. Though I can’t go again this year, I’ll tune in to hear and see them on National Geographic’s Crane Cam. For the fifth year, “craniacs” like me can watch live video each evening as the birds settle down to rest in the safety of Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary and each morning as they take flight to feed in the surrounding corn fields. Best viewing, ‘til April 6, is 7:30-9:30 am and 8-10 pm, EST. Tune in often to increase your chances of seeing diverse species of ducks and the occasional whooping crane among the sandhills.

For the best reading about North America’s two members of the Grus genus, look for Paul Johnsgard’s Crane Music: A Natural History of American Cranes. The author follows the gregarious birds through an eventful year of long-distance migration, ecstatic courtship dancing, and the rearing of ungainly young (Why are crane chicks called colts? Leopold said, “On some dewy June morning watch them gambol over their ancestral pastures at the heels of the roan mare, and you will see for yourself.”).

For a globe-trotting introduction to all fifteen of the world’s crane species, read Peter Matthiessen’s The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes. Matthiessen has been called our “Nature Laureate” for his lyrical writing about snow leopards, shorebirds, tropical jungles, Antarctica, and more. Heaven isn’t my favorite Matthiessen book, and I agree with reviewer Jason Roberts who calls it “a series of imperfect quests”. Matthiessen undertook the expeditions over several years, resulting in an overly-long travel chronicle with a sometimes-uneven tone. But if you stick with it, you’ll find evocative passages such as this:

The larger cranes, over five feet tall, with broad strong wings eight feet in span, appear well capable of bearing aloft a wispy old-time sage. The cranes are the greatest of the flying birds and, to my mind, the most stirring, not less so because the horn notes of their voices, like clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth. Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species—and ours, too, though we learn it very late—must ultimately depend for survival.

Though symbols of sagacity and longevity, cranes have an irresistible, sometimes goofy, appeal to kids. My offspring are especially drawn to the dramatic tale of whooping cranes’ ongoing rescue from near-extinction, so it’s not surprising that they love Eileen Spinelli’s Song for the Whooping Cranes. It’s a gentle, rhymed tribute to the endangered birds, greatly enhanced with watercolor illustrations of both close-up behavior and panoramic habitat. Newberry winner Jean Craighead George also has a crane picture book, called Luck. The hero is a migrating sandhill crane, named Luck by a girl who rescues him from a plastic six-pack ring. Wendell Minor’s paintings illuminate Luck’s momentous journey. And kids who crave a wealth of facts about all kinds of cranes will enjoy North American Cranes, by Lesley DuTemple. One of Carolrhoda Books’ popular Nature Watch series, the book pairs high quality photos with clear descriptions of crane biology, behavior, and ecology for upper elementary students.

Kids, teachers, and everyone else enamored with cranes will also want to visit the website of the International Crane Foundation. ICF’s site offers news on the latest research around the world, a field guide to all 15 species, activity packets for kids, and field trip ideas for teachers lucky enough to live near the Foundation near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Through the online shop, you can even acquire your own craniac tshirt or a copy of Birds of Heaven. I was a bit disappointed not to see A Sand County Almanac for sale there, for “Marshland Elegy” must rank among the most beautiful paeans to cranes. Even though I’m half a continent away from the Platte River, I think of Leopold’s words, as I listen to the Crane Cam, and feel freed—“The ultimate value of these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate.”


Dave Coulter said...

Your timing is perfect for this post. I saw my first flock of northbound sandhill cranes just yesterday!

I partially agree with the take on Birds of Heaven. There are portions that kind of drone on, but also some that were absolutely transcendent.

I have three favorite crane memories: Seeing a whooping crane with dozens of sandhills over in Indiana (I thought it was an albino until I was corrected by another visitor. D'oh!)

Out on a hike one day in some oak woods I saw two sandhills picking through the woods. I just thought it was odd to see them foraging that way!

Best of all was kayaking on the Wisconsin River and hearing hundreds of cranes calling through a misty sunrise.

Thanks for the inspiration!

pinenut said...

Thank you, Dave, for mentioning Matthiessen's Watson Trilogy in a previous post, which got me thinking about Birds of Heaven. You're right about its many beautiful passages, and I hope that I don't discourage anyone from picking it up.

Thanks for sharing your crane memories, too. You're fortunate to have seen them on the Wisconsin River--Leopold country!

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