Chickasaw poet, essayist, and fiction writer Linda Hogan’s essay in the Image issue 79 is a lyric meditation on the migration of sandhill cranes and their connection to the Platte River in Nebraska. It explores the links between the natural world and human making—and sets forth a way of standing in awe before nature.
Image: The essay begins with you crouching near the Platte River at dawn with a group of observers. Can you tell us about how the piece came to be written?
Linda Hogan: When I was a student, one of my professors knew I had little money for books or other essentials, and so he created jobs for me. One was studying birds, drawing their differences, at a bird blind. I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be paid for such a privilege! I loved it there. I drew the different markings on Steller’s jays and kept track of the birds that arrived.
Then, when I moved to Oklahoma, I saw the cranes that came to the river in the Lake Texoma area. So when Allison Hedge-Coke asked if I’d come to Kearney, Nebraska, to write about the sandhill cranes, I was thrilled. They arrive there from all over the world at the same time, even from Russia. It was a world of crane heads and bodies and we had to go out to their blind trying to bend and walk like cranes. They were called “keepers of the language” by the Anishinabe people, someone said. I could understand it. I knew of Northern Cheyenne who had songs preserved by wolves when Black Kettle’s group of people was being chased back and forth to Indian Territory.
Image: Your essay considers that role you just mentioned, of the cranes as keepers of language. Because of that role, you write, they “have to do, in the human being, with divinity.” How is it that these wild animals can be so bound up with something so close to the heart of human culture as language? And do we need animals to help us draw closer to the divine?
LH: I wrote several poems about the cranes, then a few essays, before deciding this was the one that touched down the closest to the beautiful birds who spoke all night. I don’t know if we need animals to keep us close to the divine, but I need wilderness, the sunrise every morning, all the possible life around me, to be a whole human, with joy inside. I think that must be the divine. And living near wildlife here in Colorado, I see how people react. If a herd of elk is sleeping on the hillside, they pull over their cars. Here, we love life. It is not that way in every place. What is more divine than love for life? But yes, I think it brings us close to what we truly are as people and to the depths inside us.
Image: It strikes me that you’re drawing from a tradition that continually sees points of connection between the human world and the natural world—a way of thinking that feels rather foreign to a modern, western mindset. Are these connections present to you in your day-to-day life as well as in your literary life? How?
LH: Yes, I think this way daily, moment by moment. I think people are only taught to be “western thinkers.” They go to schools where the training has been passed down for so long that to open the mind to any other way of thought feels foreign, alien, when in fact the knowledge is part of deep human being. On the other hand, indigenous thought takes in a continuous knowledge of an ecosystem and its workings, the value of each life in it, the song of the lichen, the stories of the plants, the placement of stars in terms of animal migrations or fish runs. So, now, if a person wants this vast understanding of their world, it takes much reconsidering of how they see, as well as what they haven’t learned.
Image: You’ve long been involved with dialogue between the arts and conservation. What do the arts have to offer conversations about environmental issues?
LH: The field of environmental humanities is emerging. The arts teach us to be slow, silent, to stop and pay attention. That is the invitation to the field of conservation, which has thought too long about management and not what the environment teaches us to do, how it teaches us to behave. Both streams have the same goal of enlightening others, but the approaches differ greatly. We may need to receive certain parts of knowledge from one another, what to learn and how to learn.
Image: Your writing engages native spiritual traditions, but you’ve told us that you value work you read in Image. Do you find connections between the Judeo-Christian tradition and native ones?
LH: I found the same form of sacred love toward the world in both traditions—without conflict between them, until I moved for five years into the so-called Bible Belt, and then I saw that the world can have a totally destructive Christianity. But other than that, don’t all of us yearn for the same humble place where we belong in this great creation? I think so. I hope so. And we long to understand that which is amazing around us: from the hive of bees, to the tunnels of earthworms, to the forests in their world breath
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.