WHEN THE RED SUN is sinking behind the mist in the evening, the sandhill cranes begin to arrive. Long-legged, wings open wide, they come first sparely, two watchers, then in scatterings and finally in great numbers, lines of them crossing the sky to land before us hidden humans. The great birds fly across the mist, through it, necks lengthened, legs stretched out behind them, then landing, their sound an uproar. It has been noted through history that they look like writing across the sky, that they fly like words and sentences. I know a message is given above us, one of mystery and animal dignity. They have their inner maps, the memory of constellations, and a magnetic pull to place that must feel something like a passion; it is a deep pilgrimage home.
As sun passes, water is blue vein and the world currents of heartbeat of this river are even felt by the human in this flat land of golden grasses. They land and congregate one with another until they become the world. Soon no water is seen.
More fly directly over us and with such beauty there is not even a word to describe it. They have been to many places and when they leave they will fly to other worlds, waters we do not know, so many, with the last light of evening flashing on their hundred thousand wings that speak the language of feather-light, air-filled bones. They are driven by what is hidden to most of us, understood in aboriginal remembrance of traveling the causeways of land and water shine, as we recall the eroded passages of time where we, too, as Indian people who have come together for this sojourn, journeyed, seeking survival for all time.
They come to this place, now a soft gray field of birds, almost a cloud, except that they stand crowded in the water and talk, noisy, loud, and yet I find it comforting. It is night when all this life takes place, when they return to the narrowing braid of waters that was once a great, crashing river, now sandbars and only a few inches deep.
Above, as they continue to arrive, the wind shows the clouds moving with the curve of earth and the birds look darker than they are, in the turning night, all looking like water. They appear as they have done forever, along the river, half a million in number, and continue to land for many nights, the voice of earth history crying out, calling, even slightly roaring as humans try to sleep.
Tree branches are still without leaves and yet the pulse of the ground sends the fluids skyward, all attention there. It is the first evening of spring in all its chaos. Sprouts rise from the ground. A volcano erupts in Alaska. The whole earth is filled with motion and new life.
The birds are this American sky. They are the sand and water, all the elements, even fire, in their desire to travel the river, braided together in a strand. Tribes have told stories about them, told stories to them, for centuries, and they have told the tribes the stories of their own entwined journeys.
More than the mind or imagination or even the spirit can hold, they fly in, black strings of movement across the night sky, still coming when we leave to walk toward them in darkness, walking bent, single file, trying to be Crane, the life that was here before humans.
About five years ago, being a rock hound, I found the bone of an ancient sea turtle near here. Ossified. I was searching for a round river stone to take home with me. I always hope to collect even a small one from every place I visit, but instead I found a bit of the ancient world that lived here, along with the ancestors of these cranes. Those great turtles are now gone from the nearby inland waters, but the cranes still arrive. They have flown over fences, international boundary lines from Mexico, over cut golden stalks, wetlands, and each night becomes one special language, each bird joining with the others over our human silence, listening, watching.
Although the true dance takes place in the fields, some rise up, wings open, then come back down in motions elegant as the dances of Asian theater. The ones they create for possible partners are dances of stylized seduction and enchantment, and it works. I am seduced, enchanted for certain, by their songs and stories, cantos, the way they know a private world and language, ancient and separate from ours, yet part of the same, and they are telling something important. We desire to understand that telling. It seems they are sharing stories as the whales do when they congregate in the depths of ocean to speak. And as with the whales, when they leave their joined destination, it has been noted by experts that their language is different. It has changed. Writers would say they tell a new story.
For some of the younger cranes, theirs is an elaborate dance of mating. They open wings and move in great arcs and curves to attract a lifetime partner, one who will call out, return their calls, in unison, the same words and sounds establishing the union.
One night a driving storm shakes the world. Thunder breaks open sky and for the first time all is silent for a while, as if the cranes are taking in the larger voice, and then it begins again, the constant talk, the convergence of languages from the four corners of the world, where they have all been.
I hear them all night and I think, They are the soul of this land. In the morning, I go outside to watch them leave in a roar of wing beats, traveling to near fields to eat the leftover harvests, gleaning corn and wheat, crickets and other insects, to stretch and dance. They need a certain amount of calcium, and I wonder if nutrition plays a part in the dwindling of the whooping cranes who come to this same place, smaller in number, larger in size.
These sandhills were once a savannah, a world of tall plants and grasses. Now it is changed by farmlands and highways. Once, there was a roaring river. It was called by some of the tribes a place of healing waters.
Cranes have a fossil map four and a half million years old. Other research says nine million years. The bones of sandhill cranes have been used by ancient peoples in beads and medicine bundles. Also, the crane leads a line of animals connected with humans in a pictograph that was once thought of as a story, then used as an old Chippewa land claim in court, where it held up as legal. Writer Allison Hedge Coke says that the Chippewa call the cranes keepers of language. When I see their writing in the sky, or even their tracks in sandy mud, hear their voices, I can understand this of these birds with long black legs, the red top of head and eye, the softly colored feathers and bend of neck. They are animals of dignity, meaning, and a history we only try to imagine, even as we recognize them on ancient pottery designs. They have to do, in the human being, with divinity.
Still, we are always tracking, keeping numbers, measuring that which is without measure, trying to either categorize or to make sense of meaning or beauty in this world. In our new times, we track most often to help the survival of other lives, and yet the world all around us is changing, growing smaller moment by moment. We must encircle that with our knowledge, our intuition, with what we do not yet have, the learning of an entirety, a wholeness, or an expanded vision that takes in not just the study of one but the knowledge and understanding of all. We might track ourselves, our true histories, even truth, constantly forgotten, ignored, and denied.
We are not at peace, even among ourselves. What can I say of the rest of the human world, but that it all breaks my heart day after day and I wish to fly away with the cranes and be one of them, in the gleaning field by day, legs down when I come to the water flying by night, going afar with my clan, returning each year to reaches in the right place in sky and water, alive with the moon inside me.
There was something I once read in one of the great mythologies and stories of cranes. Here is what I remember of it:
There was a woman they called Crane
because of her dance. Graceful of leg,
she always wore
the color of feathers,
downy white, gray-tipped,
red paint across her eyes.
She enchanted men and they believed they loved her.
Following her at night, they walked through marshes
and dried grasses, over fallen trees, into snow, cold,
and through the brush,
only to find themselves
winged and standing among others
like spirits taken away to other worlds
calling out all night
in a new language
searching for that one
lost among the many.
There they go now, early morning, leaving, the red sun on them. They are fires flying red through sky, living winged embers, loud, the whoosh of wings like the sound of a train. The bringing together of feather, perfectly groomed. Droves of them travel. When there is more clear light. At the top, perhaps it is only the sun, the white of their wings is visible in light, but mostly they are soft gray, cloud gray.
Many tribes have watched these elegant birds, many tribes, even those in the north, and for many years. In Mississippi, where we are from, the cranes have gathered in the deep green of water, the blue of it, the sand of it, and remained, never leaving, as if they are The Ones Who Hid and Remained, while the rest of us, my people, were forced to leave our country and walk to Indian Territory.
These birds of Nebraska’s Platte River come through that territory as well, to the red lands and thick trees, to the shallow rivers. Red People, Red Land, it means. Oklahoma. Red Waters. I have seen them, the red feathers across or above the eye we sometimes used to design with red paint as we danced.
In their congress of wing and beak and claw, gathering all in one place, crowded, they are a tribe surrounded by stalks and grasses leaning in the wind, winding through a bend in the sky, clouds of the cranes, wings closing and opening, their voices telling us what we need to hear, that we are never going to know what they do, that we are never going to reach the mystery we seek, that we are always going to be children here until we find new ways of knowing and of belonging.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.