Behind my condo the Fox River flows through a wide wetlands. When I strike out for it around 7 a.m., it’s cold and a light fog hangs over everything. Recent rain raised river levels and at once I see that the wetlands have been partly flooded again. I head through the woods to an observation deck where I can try to gauge the water level. It’s higher than the last time I was here but not so high as when I found no other sign of land than a couple isolated clumps of higher ground. With binoculars I survey it all closely, slowly, and soon notice, upriver, just beyond the top of a bend, two sandhill cranes standing near the bank. They are still and silent, as motionless as the stark barren shrubs that occasionally rise above the sedges. I fix my gaze on them and after a while I realize they are watching me as well.
It occurs to me then how stirred I have been by the sight of sandhill cranes in Wisconsin, how I’ve slowed my car on back country roads when I see their distant shapes in a hayfield or their limp and lazy passage across the sky. Aldo Leopold, in his great essay “Marshland Elegy,” reminds us of the sandhill crane’s ancient origins. He writes, “When we hear his call we hear no bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” He claims that “a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility.”
Whenever I see a sandhill crane, I vibrate with some sort of sympathetic tuning struck by the simple fact of the bird’s existence, feel connected to something far vaster and more vibrant than I can imagine. In Wisconsin the legislature soon will likely approve the hunting of cranes. While I can, I want to stare at them every chance I get. I want to think that my home ground is theirs as well.