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Sandhill Cranes!

It's better in real life!

Last Saturday, en route to a work session in Thatcher Woods, I heard that familiar, fluttering call echo over the woods and my heart leaped, as it always does at that moment. I stopped my bike by the side of the road and tilted my head back to watch a large group heading north by northwest, and then went on, happy for the sight: a good sign, I thought, fitting the day’s stunning clarity and warmth.

One flock would have been enough to make the morning, but as we all cut and carried buckthorn to the pile for later burning, the air seemed tissued with the sound and sight of the cranes, as every ten minutes or so another family group passed overhead, smaller groups joining larger groups in that wheeling, distinctive way they have, until we were watching nearly as much as working. Luckily we were opening up the savanna at the edge of a small prairie on the west side of the river, so we could see up through the leafless trees, and then, work done, we walked forward, drawn into the open where we got a panoramic view. Standing among last year’s Indian grass, side-oats grama and big bluestem, in this small, self-contained world edged by hawthorns, young oaks and the river, it was hard to believe the busy urban thruway was so close by, with apartment buildings on the other side. That patch of prairie has had its own struggles. I once saw it so ripped up by off-road vehicles it wasn’t clear how well it would mend. With care it recovered and one chilly October afternoon two years later I found bottle gentian growing there.

Cranes need wetlands

We stood, we watched, and someone said that when she first saw cranes flying a few years ago, she thought they looked like drunken geese, as they grouped in their free-form, sociable way: a more non-linear, laterally organized way of getting up to Wisconsin and points north than geese show in their sober V’s. Some cranes now stop in Illinois, however. Last year a pair took up residence in one of those builders’ wetlands in back of a cousin’s house in a prosaic subdivision in Huntley. He, not up on birds, nearly fell in love, I think; as how could you not?

Good flying weather it was that scherzo of a morning, sunny, blustery, the sky a brilliantly clear blue vault, rare in our hazy, cloudy metropolis with its often dull light. They rode the strong south wind and sailed along, glittering and flashing in the sun. The heart does leap at such a sight and sound, and even now, typing these words, at the memory. Having come back from the edge of extinction, those big, elegant birds are a symbol that conservation efforts can work, do work, should work, a sign that if we care enough and work at it enough we can bend the grim line way from environmental catastrophe, help it arc toward sustainability and environmental regeneration.

Until the early 20th century, extravagant bird life flourished in Illinois, and accounts from prior centuries scarcely seem credible in these latter days. Some Indian tribes identified with the water birds, a living embodiment of earth’s goodness and generosity to her creatures, including humans. Accounts from the 19th century mention scarcely believable multitudes of many species, numbers that to hunters seemed inexhaustible—until they weren’t. Enough people cared about this in the early 20th century that one of the first intergovernmental conservation treaties specifically protected migrating birds, halting wholesale destruction carried on at the time, in part for the purpose of adorning women’s hats. It took much more than that to bring the cranes back, decades of work by individuals, small groups and organizations such as the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. Seeing Saturday’s abundance of cranes made those early accounts ring a little truer. This is how our land should be, and could be again if enough of us care enough, are skillful and timely and lucky enough.

These days, in certain, surprising quarters, environmentalism gets discounted a little too readily. Some people say conservation and environmentalism are old-fashioned luxuries, are the province of privileged white folks, and that we must instead focus on “practical” sustainability and social justice. Those people have a valid point, especially if you equate nature with wilderness. But nature is everywhere. Social justice is clearly of the utmost importance; but good, green habitat helps support social justice. Our society and economy are embedded in green nature, we are part of the living earth, not the other way around.

If we make sure our land includes good habitat for the cranes, for robins and bees, frogs and bats, beaver, otter and deer, for hummingbirds and butterflies it clearly will be better habitat for us as well. Over the past thirty years, numerous investigations and studies have demonstrated what has long been known intuitively: it is in relation to green nature that we paradoxically become most fully human. Healthy, biodiverse habitat hospitable to other species improves our own physical, psychological and social health—for both individuals and social groups. So all sustainability efforts by rights should be, by necessity must be, imbedded within a conservation ethic as a framework for action. As the cranes go, so go we all.

Note: For readers interested in nature's role in creating healthy urban settings, these books are full of useful studies and narratives covering everything from community gardens to parks to habitat restoration.

  • Green Nature/Human Nature: The Meaning of Plants in Our Lives, by Charles A. Lewis (U of I, 1996)
  • Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, edited by Peggy F. Barlett (MIT, 2005)
  • Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-being through Urban Landscapes, edited by Lindsay Campbell and Anne Wiesen (U. S. Forest Service, revised ed. 2011)

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