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Betsy Hedberg

Connecting with the Cranes
by Betsy Hedberg

Each March, I embark on a mini-adventure to Nebraska to witness the annual spring migration of the sandhill cranes. These extraordinary birds winter in the Southwest and northern Mexico and migrate to the northern tundra for the short summer breeding season. Every year for millennia, they have made the Platte River of central Nebraska an important spring stopover. Before settlers heavily cultivated this land, the cranes thrived on the river’s abundant plant life, storing up strength for their long journey north. Today, they gather this energy from the remnants of last season’s corn harvest on the numerous area farms. It is during this period, generally from late February to early April, when thousands of cranes converge on the Platte, providing an incredible spectacle for the increasing numbers of tourists they attract.

My experience with the cranes is generally nothing short of magical. As I spend time on the banks of the Platte, on a footbridge over the river, or at an Audubon Society blind, I find the cranes becoming an intimate part of my present-moment experience, holding great meaning for my inner world. The eloquence of Aldo Leopold’s description fits well with my own impressions: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reaches of words” (from A Sand County Almanac, 1966). I fathomed this “higher gamut” upon first contact with the cranes, as I set up my tent to the music of their evening return from the corn fields to the riverbed. Their calls instantly reached below the level of the “pretty” into the deepest regions of my heart, in a way that even Aldo Leopold found difficult to put into words.

Leopold continues, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” So it is in my experience, as I spend each evening and morning silently observing the noisy throngs of cranes going to the fields (in the morning) and back to the river (in the evening). As I sit, I transform from mere observer to participant in a timeless cycle. I experience a deep connection with the generations of birds who have come before these ones and the human and non-human beings who have also sat with the cranes. I ponder what it might have been like for the local Native Americans who witnessed the same annual ritual. The cranes’ spring arrival to the Platte seems to fulfill a deep of promise of renewal, a promise made throughout the generations, saying “We will return, we will carry out our purpose and come back.” 

These contemplations connect me with my own search for purpose and renewal. How purpose-filled the cranes appear, in contrast with the way I often feel. Experiencing “oneness” with the cranes allows me to get in touch with my own sense of purpose and to realize that it is when I feel purpose-driven that I tend to make journeys to witness nature. My less purpose-filled phases are the ones that find me hovering over my computer, checking e-mail and shuffling papers on my desk. The cranes thus help me realize the fulfillment of one of my own cycles, that of coming back into a sense of purpose and a quest for meaning by allowing myself to “just be” in nature.

The cranes have a variety of calls, which they express in flight, on the ground, and throughout the night. After hearing them fly overhead each morning and evening, I have become familiar with what I (and other naturalists) interpret to be the meaning of some of these calls. One call in particular, a sort of peaceful gurgling purr, appears to mean “I’m here, and I’m OK.” Since they stay together as family units, they use this call to reassure each other that they’re still together and to help keep group members on track. Hearing this call repeated within the flocks overhead brings me an incredibly deep sense of peace, as if the entire landscape were telling me “I’m here, and it’s OK.” I have seldom felt so reassured. Not only the cranes, but also the river, trees, and grasses, tell me at these moments that I need them to comfort me and to keep me sane. In fact, I know that we all need this wildness.

Ultimately, I find myself moving between this sense of complete connection and peace with the cranes and the landscape and a more objective experience of observation. By the end of the trip, I feel as if I have, in some ways, become a crane, but also feel left out when I realize that I am not included in their activities and cannot join them on their migration. My world has merged with theirs, and they have become part of my psyche, yet I know I was not really enmeshed with them. Nevertheless, as I drive south, away from the Platte, I feel a sense of longing and know that I will miss the cranes and this sense of oneness I have been privileged to experience.

(To have your own instant experience of connection with these beautiful birds, visit the Rowe Sanctuary Crane Cam, available at http://www.rowesanctuary.org, in the morning or evening before mid-April, or plan your own trip to Nebraska next year – you will not be disappointed!)

© Copyright 2009 Betsy Hedberg.  All Rights Reserved. 

Betsy Hedberg

Betsy Hedberg, M.A., is a Denver-based psychotherapist, career counselor, and mindfulness and meditation instructor. She helps people incorporate mindfulness practices into their daily lives to realize greater quality time, reduce stress, navigate personal and career transitions, and connect with their deepest values. She also has a passion for travel and is preparing to announce some mindful, soulful excursions. Her blog/web site provides useful tips to help counter the stressful lifestyle so many of us lead, with a special focus on helping people recover from divorce and end-of-relationship issues. If you live in the Denver area, Betsy offers in-person life transition and career counseling sessions to help you reach your fullest life potential.





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