I wrote this piece quite a few years ago, but I think of it, and reread it, every spring during this stupendous migration
When I step outside to clear my lungs of smoke and to breathe living air, I can hear the sand hill cranes down along the Platte River. It is an eerie counterpoint to the bright lights and disco beat of the Holiday Inn, a sound rolling and breaking in waves over the flat prairie where they rest in the wetlands on their southern migration.
I have seen them in daylight too. They are graceful in the air. From a dream I once had after I first saw them, I know that their angle of descent is also the precise angle at which humans descend into sleep. No longer airborne, they are suddenly awkward and angular. Maybe if I had not just been at a conference of hundreds of people, the birds would not look so much like an audience, all craning in the same direction, beaks up, alert, necks outstretched so as not to miss a single significant bit of information; or pecking through the fields as if there were a buffet line.
But it is the sound, not the sight, that is so arresting. It resonates off thousands of hollow bones and through a million years. It is a sound way older than human speech. In my memory, I keep this sound next to the low rumbling and grinding of a glacier I heard moving against Mount Baker in 1974; the first register of my mother’s voice; the vibration of my father’s saxophone; sounds to which the body has its own visceral response.
Note: I had lived in Nebraska for several years before I witnessed the migration of Sand Hill Cranes. I had never heard of such a thing — the pattern of their migration floats in the shape of an hourglass, collecting from the far Canadian north, narrowing right over central Nebraska where they rest midway; then fanning out again to the south. My younger daughter asked me recently…. “is there a reason you made us get up early, drive a long way, sit in the dark, and wait to see some birds? And it was cold and muddy?” Answer: “Yes, there was a reason.”