This essay is unpublished and has been reproduced here in its entirety.
I was a whooping crane once. A slight breeze across my skin and I am again miles above the earth, held by the wind, motionless like a god, or it may be a smell as simple as the slight dankness of mud and I am back in the sphagnum forests, my beak tingling for the taste coming to it of fish and molluscs, or it may be a peek of light in the distance, the glimpse of a star and I orientate my body as if readying to fly south or north again.
The archaeopteryx is sixty five million years old and is in the feathers and the hollowed bones of the cranes. As their wings became wide and white tipped with strong black fingers they saw the world below them; the last dinosaurs sickly and charred without young, mountain ranges that heaved up in a shudder, islands born and subside and reborn, rivers that formed and reformed, and when the great ice retreated they saw the prairies covered in summer flowers and the humming bird poised, his fast wings a blur, and the eagle high floating high, watching for the movement of a mouse, and they saw the smoke of man.
Long ago there were many whooping cranes across the taiga of the northern boreal forests where the winters are long, white and quiet and the summers are short and vibrant with life.
Before I was born I felt the soft vibration of clucking falling like rain around me, broken by strident calls that cut across one another as stick like shadows crossed in jerky movements across the greyness of my shell world. I shivered and tried to raise my head and stretch my wings. My heart so tiny, so newly beating, began to thump.
I could not see then but I have seen him often since, the red fox with pointed ears, bent low, his paws soft from the wrist as he lifts them one by one, creeping across the ground. He slows as he feels the grass sinking with his weight, peers at the waters of the marsh then at the tall white birds with their wings wide spread, their crimson crowns flaring and their hard beaks jabbing toward him. He pulls his red tongue back from the black line of his lips, turns and pads away. Perhaps he looks back once or twice. Sometimes it is a silver fox, his coat like a shiny icy stream flowing over blue stones, or a black fox, pure in darkness and his eyes cannot be seen
Nor did I see high on the narrow crown of the white spruce the predator much feared. He is strong, the size of a small cat, with glistening black wings and he is hungry for those curled and forming in their shells. He swoops with speed towards the nest, the knife of his beak shattering through to tender flesh and he flies sharply upward flapping hard, the brown and white egg falling from the body of the unborn that had lain next to me, and all that chick saw in his short life was the red of the raven’s eye and all he surely heard was the desperate whoops of the big white birds.
My shell breaks. The water is shimmering and bright to the south and grey to the north. After a day I stretch my loosened wings for balance and take steps over the rise of the nest. The cold stream flows over my toes and up to my wobbly knees.
The season is good, snails and beetles are busy under the furry spicules of the sphagnum mosses. The sun is warm and melted snow comes in diamond streams from the tundra in the north and the mountains in the west. In the water reeds course long and thick. I eat insects and plants but soon I am fed frogs, small frogs that sing all around us and have striped backs that looked like pieces of sticks in the water.
Every day I tried to fly but didn’t until the bear came. I was struck with fear when the big birds stopped in their lilting walk beside me. At first they were still and watched for they knew the bear might turn around for there were easier things for her to get in the bloom of summer; the berries, the spawning fish and newborn deer still folded, drying in the sun.
The bear kept coming, her shoulder rising with each step and behind two small cubs fell over one another fetching themselves out of the water. There is a blur of white feathers around me and whoops cut through the sing-song hum of crickets. I followed, running fast into the wind. I stretched my wings wide and felt the lift, throwing me back. I usually fall but not this time, I level my wings so the air flows over the front edge and sense the pressure below thrusting upwards. I push down hard and I am forced forwards and up. I am airborne and the big birds are flying with me. I am flying and I am only fifty days old. I circle, copying the big birds. I am strong, I am victorious. I do not need to be afraid anymore. I can fly.
Below, a lone grey wolf emerges from the spruce moving like a ghost between the low willow bushes. The wolf has eyes that stare into the heart, not like the fox who sneaks a look and may change his mind. Others are behind him, moving faster, becoming a single silver rippling animal. The bear pushes through shallow water to land, hurrying her cubs before her but the wolves circle her snapping, dropping back, another lunging, biting her feet. One sinks his teeth into the neck of a cub. The mother bear on her hind legs turns in a flash but three wolves are at her heels. Others drag the cub away and the rest dodge the bear’s blows until suddenly they turn and run, flowing away, like the last waters of a fast stream, the cub a brown bump in the middle.
We land into the wind skidding with our feet on the water. I collapse into a feathery tangle. The bear is limping away the opposite way from the wolves, pushing the remaining cub with her nose. The big birds cluck soothing sounds as though I was a newborn again.
When the inconnu spawn in the late summer flashing in the green and brown waters, we scoop them up as they flow around our feet, bears on the shore or in the shallows lift one fish after another with their great paws, wolves are alongside feeding as they want on the bear’s catches, the eagles and the falcons circle and the fox is there ready to feast on what is left.
The wood buffalo come to drink often, small sharp horns above their heavy eyes, beards trailing from their chins and the remnants of winter coat still matted around their shoulders. We come close for their walking in the marsh makes the big fish dart away from hiding places and tasty shellfish and sweet bulbs of plants are thrown from the disturbed mud.
Everywhere there are insects and birds. The fat willow ptarmigans fly up from the ground with a squeak and a rapid flutter of wings, red headed finches fly in flocks of hundreds through the conifers, palm warblers trill in a quite buzz, their tails bobbing up and down as they search the ground, and the chickadees stand on our back and on our toes as if we were trees.
Other cranes are not far, the edges of territories marked by the sound of the whoop. Toward the east are the forests of black spruce where the sun comes striped across our bodies as we forage and in the south the aspens are story tellers with their rising and falling whispers.
When the moon is fat or just a sliver we feel its pull in our blood, the worms are closer to the surface and the fish become careless. The stars move slowly around the big one in the north. The Aurora Borealis calls to us with its swaying and jiggling magnetic fields and we want to dance. I bow, spread my wings wide and push them down and jump as high as I can. We dance everywhere, on the nest, on the muskeg rippling with the water beneath, on the shores of the river and amongst the grasses on the plains.
The days get shorter and from the south there is the taste and warmth of the Gulf wind and from the north the frosty harbinger of coming snow. The grasses are turning yellow. The beavers and the muskrats are feverish building dams before winter. I have only a few cinnamon feathers left, like the ptarmigan am becoming white. The snow shoe hare is changing too, with furry boots and a long coat, and it will be hard to see him in the winter. The squirrels are busier than ever and they pause and look at us with the nuts in the hands as if anxious for us to go, as if we don’t know.
The bears are too busy to chase us and the red fox has lost interest. Only the grey wolf still stares with amber eyes.
The big birds fly wide circles. I join them, listening to the sounds of other birds rising in the distance, feeling the coldness of the upper currents and the fierce push of the northern winds. On the ground we eat and ready ourselves. I copy, preening my feathers, making sure they are hooked and strong.
The first snows haven’t come but there is an icy wind that day and we rise, circling only once, feeling the air. The beaver looks up and he knows we are going and the caribou they stop for a moment and turn to us.
We rise for the last time and my body is heavy. I am flapping hard. The uplifting air of the faraway gulf is coming in a stream rising, lifting us with it and we spiral higher and higher and as we turn south our wings become still and we soar against the warmth then as it fades glide almost imperceptibly downward until the warm edge of the next updraft lifts us again. I know the timbre, the pitch, the signature of my mother and father’s calls. I learn to tilt my wing so I slide to the right place near them, just behind where the air flow is smooth.
Below we see the rivers that come together and the form the great marsh that is our home, looping apart in streams and coming together again through fields of swaying cattails. The sky is full of our trumpeting calls, the bark of the whistling swans, and the honking of the brown and grey geese. Flocks of birds test the winds, rising and wavering, and the snow geese are blue and white turning in the sky. Below the waters of the marsh glitters from the flittering of thousands of ducks.
Southward there are forests of spruce and willow then black bogs to the salt plains with huge mounds of glistening white that can hurt your eyes, to the great meadows of grasses and sedge and there the caribou move nimbly in great herds, like a flock of birds that turn on the wind. The wood bison are an immense dark tide relentlessly moving south. The raptors, the hawks the harriers and the golden eagle with their sailing shallow wing beats, come to look as the weak falter.
Behind us the first snows come and grey feathers of the snowy owl drift on the wind. He stays in the taiga and the tundra hunting for lemmings and mice in his new plumage of white.
Before sunset we glide to the ground, forage and sleep, standing with one foot tucked. Two more days and where the great plains begin we join other families at a shallow lake that has muddy shores full of worms and meadows of wild millet among scattered stands of birch with their last orange leaves of fall. The sandhill cranes arrive in streamers of an earthen grey pink, swirling and rising from the water to the grasslands and back. It is a race for all of us, to eat as much as possible, to strengthen ourselves for the last stage southward as the artic winds nip at our feathers.
Over the prairies there is the smell of dust as the plains bison thunder southward. We fly low over mist shrouded forest in mid America south eastward until we see the mighty curve of the dazzling ocean.
In the great coastal wetlands of the country men now call Texas we stop and let the warmth seep into our bodies. We feed. I am mystified at first. The blue crabs fight but I learnt to toss and crunch them for the taste of the sweet meat. Soon I eat dozens a day and I am an expert at finding them under the water. My upper beak has rough grooves in it and I can easily hold the twisting fish and the slippery eel.
The marshlands and sand bars are silvery stripes in the setting sun and the ocean is behind stretching, disappearing into the gold and scarlet sky. There is another whooper in the sun. My father raises his wings as if he were facing a bear and points his beak to the sky, trumpeting, they circle one another then come together bowing with their bills low, their crimson crowns almost touching and then they move away. My family never go further along the shore than that spot.
Many of our northern friends are here too, the red headed finches in the woods and the warblers with their tinkling songs. Further where the water is fresh and the black jack oaks come almost to the shore there is the shimmering buzz of blue dragonflies and the rat tat tat of woodpeckers.
The alligator surfaces and glides with only his eyes above the water and we know to watch him, to feel in our legs any changes in the push of the water. We are quick to fly. On land the racoons come out at night, ghostly with their masked faces. We are not afraid of them but fearsome is the bobcat with his tufted black ears and stumpy tail. He hides so still, upwind and his smell is faint, no sound.
I dance and I dance and dance, but it is not for another season that a beautiful one dances with me. We pass each other forward and back and we bow and we stretch our wings to the sky, and we jump and I do a jig, she drops her head and I know we will be together for all our time on earth.
Storms come suddenly and furiously and the bay is thrown into great waves. There is no shelter on the land or in the sky and birds are tossed high and torn. The marshes are in upheaval and washed in mud and salt strewn with broken forest trees. The big birds know and we go inland and they are alright and she is alright and we fly back, back to taiga.
There were changes in my time, smoke that came in small lines and not a billow like that of a forest fire, the forests became open with pasture and new animals and fields that go on and on with waving stalks of gold and no trees. And then, there were more men, new men, different men.
In the north the new white men were hungry and they wore rough clothes and beaver skin hats.
We watched the peregrine make slow circles in the air. He wasn’t looking at us. We heard the beavers slapping their tails hard and they disappeared and the fox sniffed the air and ran. We heard the roar and the stampede of the wood bison at times when they should be quiet, and smelt the lead in the hair and the burning of skins and the smell of rotting meat. We saw the Indians dancing wildly and covered in war paint flying hard on their horses, pulling back on their arrows as they rode. We heard the guns and we rose and settled again, not knowing what to do.
There was nothing, nothing in my life from the archaeopteryx to now that told me how to deal with a gun.
I was shot. The last thing I saw was a man’s boots and the tip of his gun and my beak trailed on the earth and his hands were tight around my feet that would never dance again.
They, the men, kept shooting the whooping cranes. Often they left them on the ground and the fox came, bewildered and he smelt the body and he looked up again and finally he ate. He ate again and again until he became sick with the lead and could not run anymore.
The skies became silent. There was the hum of the crickets and the beavers and squirrels peered about and looked up and then busied themselves for the winter. The willow ptarmigans were fewer in number but the finches and warblers were strong and they made their way south. The caribou were in smaller families, nimble as always, but the wood bison were hardly to be seen.
A man different from all of the others, from the Indians and the white hunters, carrying a camera and a notebook and wearing a hat with a mosquito veil, traveled to the taiga year after year. He thought it might be where whooping cranes nested, but he did not know, all he knew were there likely less than twenty cranes on the earth.
He found a nest and under the scrutiny of a raven high on the tip of a white spruce ruffling his wings and settling again, he photographed the two dappled eggs, and in his mind he gathered all he knew, all the science, all his intuition and all the stories and he formed a plan.
So I watch. As a spirit becomes all-knowing it must let go, yet now as dreams and truth are merging, I have one more desire and that is to be a whooping crane again, to help man to see, to tempt him to fly, to tempt him to remember creation.
In my egg there was silence in the greyness, just sometimes the soft foot fall of human feet and the hum of the incubator as it came on to keep me warm.
The shell cracked and in the soft quiet light I felt alone but I knew I wasn’t for I could hear the breath of the humans. A gloved hand appeared, an eye a beak and a crown, and, yes, I decided it was my mother. It showed me to a bowl of grain and demonstrated how to peck.
I grew quickly in the warm place of walls and a small wired yard. As white feathers appeared two big birds led me out to a field and there were three others still with cinnamon feathers and the big birds began to dance, they left quickly but it didn’t matter for once we began it seemed we all knew how to dance.
In a long field of grass the big bird in a machine angled slowly into the air and we followed. I felt the wind over the edge of my wing and the pressure below pushing me up and forward. I was airborne. The thrill of it. We circled and landed, and we did the same another day and another.
I became strong and I felt the pull of the moon, the dance of magnetic lines, but most of all I felt the draw of the north in my feathers and in my hollowed bones.
The big bird took us north, over the houses and highways, shredded fields and forests. I rode the currents. I came close to the big bird and he was laughing the way humans do. It was as if we were one, we were flying together, we could both see, could both feel, we were free and I was going home.
Key references used in this essay
× Price. Alice Lindsay. Cranes the Noblest Flyers. La Alameda Press, Albuquerque. USA. 2001.
× Hughes. Janice M. The Migration of Birds. Seasons on the Wing. Firefly Books, Buffalo, USA. 2009.
× Hughes. Janice M. Cranes. A Natural History of a Bird in Crisis. Firefly Books, Buffalo, USA. 2008.
× United Nations Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Centre, http://web.archive.org/web/20070705053141/http://www.unep-wcmc.org/sites/wh/woodbuff.html
× International Crane Foundation, https://www.savingcranes.org/whooping-crane.html