Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

A Thanksgiving Post That Just Barely Involves Food

Thanksgiving came in a rush at our house this year and disappeared just as quickly. We didn’t host, so we simply took our made-from-scratch green bean casserole to the family shindig and brought back an empty dish and some full stomachs. The family event was, of course, very tasty. Mom’s pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin, a fruit salad tossed with cheese tortellini, roasted yams, creamy corn, a mountain of mashed potatoes with an ocean of gravy, and almost enough sweets for everyone to have their own personal pie. It was a delicious and dizzying affair. It also brought home the fact that although we’ve remained snow-free so far here, the season has turned.

As the leaves grow bare and brace themselves under the freezing temperatures of late fall, I tend to shift into a more introspective mood. I make tea, embrace books, listen to the calls of birds swooping southward.

For those of us who live in northern states, migration is  a concrete fact of the season, woven into our cognitive and emotional conception of autumn. Geese fly in sharp angles overhead, calling out in their harsh voices, over and over. Huge clusters of sparrows swoop over the now-empty grain fields. Gradually, many animals disappear to warmer climes. However, until my uncle Mike, an avid naturalist, took me to Indiana in 2004, migration was just a single thread running through the fall tapestry, much like the rust-colors of the landscape,  the acrid smoke of burning leaves, and the growing chill in the air. Six years ago, he took me to Jasper-Pulaski, Indiana, for the first time, and I caught a glimpse of the phenomenon on a completely new scale. Yesterday, I packed up some gear and brought the Unicyclist with me for a return pilgrimage.

At sunset Friday and again at sunrise yesterday, we stood huddled together on the edge of Goose Pasture, watching literally thousands of greater sandhill cranes from the Great Lakes population kite into the open field. For those of you who don’t know what a sandhill crane is, it is a living dinosaur; a structurally identical sandhill crane fossil from the Miocene dates it as the oldest surviving bird species. Crane fossils in general date from the Eocene, and living cranes are, in many ways, largely unchanged from their ancient ancestors. In the flesh, most species of cranes are startlingly large, and all of them are keen-eyed, resourceful, and intensely aware of being watched. The greater sandhill crane stands about four to five feet high, possesses a wingspan of some six feet, and flies fully extended, its red-topped head reaching forward and its legs stretching behind it in a strong, clean line. A sandhill typically lives 20-25 years in the wild and mates for life. Although a crane colt is vulnerable to avian and mammalian predators, a fully-grown sandhill crane is not usually viewed as a viable option for filling one’s belly, thanks to the crane’s powerful wings, fierce talons, and deadly accuracy with its beak. As one example of their precision: I recently came across a story of a sandhill in captivity which neatly plucked a visitor’s hearing aid without so much as nicking the ear.

The sandhill has a voice at once distinct and difficult to describe, a dry, echoing ga-r-r-r-o-o-o-o which can carry over a mile. Hearing groups of sandhill cranes in a place like Goose Pasture, one of the first things that jumps out is how markedly unique the birds’ voices are even as they all sound so characteristically crane-like. The voice of the sandhill crane is a marble rolling across a wooden floor, a creaky door, a purr, a rattle, an echo of the long-lost past and the voice of a tenuous present. Twelve thousand sandhill cranes calling in Jasper-Pulaski at once is a melancholy and achingly beautiful sound. Their voices are the voices of our marshes and untrodden places, which are far too often disappearing.

The cranes in Wisconsin join thousands of others in the Great Lakes flock every fall and journey south to overwinter in Florida and Georgia. Jasper-Pulaski, a wetland area surrounded by agricultural fields, is one of the few prime spots left for those 10,000-30,000 traveling cranes to stop, socialize, and grow fat on waste grain before continuing their long journey. Migration is a balancing act: stay too long too far north and risk increasingly dangerous temperatures and winter storms before the trip is completed, or hurry south without ensuring sufficient fat stores for the necessary physical exertion, only to risk exhaustion and failure. The cranes pause here as long as they can, dining on the waste grain in nearby fields, but also on tubers, frogs, moles, voles, snakes, insects, worms, and the like. And they socialize. They talk, they dance, and they dine together. Behavioral ecologists are still working to unravel the reasons why these cranes, who live in solitary and territorial family units most of the year, stage in such enormous groups during migration. Whatever the reason, the impressive sight may draw over 200 visitors on a busy day in the period from October through December to Jasper-Pulaski.

This week, we joined those visitors. Yesterday, before the horizon had more than the palest bloom of sunrise, we actually stood alone for a short time in front of that vast field dotted with the gray-and-rust-colored bodies of cranes until the other cold and wide-eyed visitors began trickling in to join us. To see the evidence of migration on that scale, and to see the intensely communal nature of it, is to briefly open a window into another world and a separate reality which just skims the outskirts of our awareness. We know of migration, but most of us experience it as isolated moments of geese calling far overhead, dark silhouettes against a cold, clear sky. This—this crowded, cacophonous, sea of sandhill cranes dancing and calling and circling slowly on thermals—blasts apart that conception. Standing at the edge of Goose Pasture, it is suddenly clear how much we dwell on the edges of their world, so very occasionally glimpsing their existence even though our habitats define the edges of theirs. We drain wetlands, develop wild areas, and continue to spread, pushing the boundaries of their habitats ever-closer.

In the chapter about Wisconsin in A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold devoted a section entitled “A Marshland Elegy” to the sandhill cranes. When he wrote, sandhill cranes teetered on the edge of extinction in Wisconsin, and he believed, like many others, that they would soon vanish from the Wisconsin landscape.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words. . . .

Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history. . . .

Through a variety of conservation efforts, however, the sandhill crane population has expanded greatly since 1949, when Leopold’s book was first published. Still, Leopold raises some difficult questions when writing his book, one of which is a key issue in conservation attempts: we must see and touch the wild places of the world in order to to treasure them, in order to want to conserve them for what they are. Yet, in the act of knowing them, we may destroy the wilderness we have grown to value. Our ability to strike that balance is one of the most challenging and important tasks facing us in the preservation of the wondrous and increasingly unknown beauty of our world. Currently, it seems the greater problem is that we all are spending more and more time tangled in work, Life in general, and a mind-boggling supply of multimedia engagement. All those things have a place, but when we become too snarled in them, we have less and less time out-of-doors discovering the bright colors of a painted turtle, the bizarre inundations of toads after a summer rain, the sweet flavor of wild hickory nuts, the honey-pineapple-butterscotch scent of a Ponderosa pine, or the delicate gold of a fallen ginkgo leaf.

This world is drenched in beauty and, increasingly, it is slipping past us.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the uncle who brought me to the cranes six years ago and opened a world to me that still captivates me to this day. I am thankful for a partner who thinks standing in freezing temperatures simply to hear the sound of thousands of cranes calling together is a good idea. I am thankful for the small pockets of wilderness that dot this state: the marshes, sedge meadows, fens, forests, and prairie preserves. I am thankful that I live in a place where the Unicyclist and I can take daily walks and on which we have seen this year alone turtles, woodpeckers, crayfish, owls, hawks, woodchucks, morels, wild blackberries and asparagus, and jack-in-the-pulpits, along with all the more run-of-the-mill flora and fauna. I am grateful for the wealth of beauty that surrounds me. I am thankful for the thoughtfulness and the good in humans that kept the cranes from going extinct in Leopold’s era, and I am thankful for the sound of cranes echoing overhead even here, even now.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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