Cranes Calling Overhead – Cairns #76

A couple of weeks ago, a flock of about one hundred sandhill cranes, heading north, circled low over the school for fifteen minutes. I announced it over the PA and most of the Chrysalis classes came outside to watch. To me, a flock of sandhill cranes make one of the most primeval sounds of them all and I was delighted that our youngest students were able to hear a sound that I never heard until my twenties. (If you have never heard sandhill cranes, please listen to this audio file because the sound is an important part of the story. – (click on the loud rattle calls from a large flock) a great bird site if you haven’t discovered it already.)

About the same time the next morning, another flock circled low over the school for ten minutes on its way north. So the next week at our school-wide Tree Assembly, Sandhill Cranes were our Species of the Week. They inspired me to give a talk that went something like this:

I want to share a story with you. It’s a story about sandhill cranes but it’s also a story about why Chrysalis is a nature school. Some people ask why we take time to take kids out into nature when they should be learning reading and math. What’s so important about nature?

This story is from when I was a young man in Alaska. It was early September, which in Alaska is autumn. Days are dramatically growing shorter. The stars can be seen again. Frost at night. The tundra plants have all turned reds and yellows and orange. I was hiking to the Wickersham Wall, the greatest vertical rise in the world, three miles from base to height. (   – except I was twice as close to Denali as this photographer was so the mountain loomed even larger.)

I hear, high above, the sound of sandhill cranes. I look up but I can’t see them. I keep walking; the sound of cranes grows. I look up with my binoculars and finally I see them, way up there, a flock of about a hundred cranes flying in loose V’s. I love their wild cries calling down to me in this beautiful, wild land. But their calls, they sound broader than that flock. So I keep searching with my binoculars and I see another flock, and then another, and another. There are about ten flocks forming a giant V of a thousand cranes calling high overhead. By now, I’ve taken off my pack and am sitting down looking up at this spectacle. The sound is so vast. So vast. I keep looking around and, my god, there is another giant V of a thousand. And another. And another. These giant V’s form a vast wing of ten thousand sandhill cranes stretched across the sky. I gaze upward as they pass over and gradually recede to the southeast.

I sling my pack back on and continue walking. About 15 minutes later, I hear the sound of cranes approaching. And the same experience unfolds. Ten thousand cranes majestically, exuberantly streaming overhead in a great wing made of giant V’s made of flocks and fading into silence.

I continue on. 15 minutes later, I hear again the vast sound of ten thousand cranes drawing near. This time, after sweeping over the vast flock with my binoculars, I direct my gaze beyond this flock in the direction that the cranes have been coming from and behind this flock, I see the next great wing of cranes following and beyond them, smaller in the great distance, the next great wing, and beyond them, another great wing, and beyond them, remote but coming this way, yet more great wings of V’s of flocks of cranes from the wild.

A great river was flowing overhead. A great river of cranes was converging from its headwaters which lay in millions upon millions of acres of tundra from which arose each year a new generation of cranes to join this river that has flowed for millions of years. This is what I was part of. I was part of a world where one hundred thousand cranes pass overhead fueled by the same oxygen that I was breathing. This amazing world, this is what we are part of. We are surrounded by other living things doing amazing things, showing us that we, too, are capable of amazing things. And that is why we take you out into nature, so that you can be reminded that you are part of something far greater and you have been given this wonderful opportunity to play a part in it.


Just learning how to play with all of this.

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