We traveled to Nebraska this spring to see the Sandhill crane migration. “I guess that’s a thing” said a friend. Is it ever. Half a million or more of this one species of bird channel their way through a fifty mile stretch of the Platte River on their way to northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They stop over at the Platte for a few weeks before the final push, for the corn, for the flocking sociability and because the river has open shores.
The birds are accustomed to the wide vistas afforded by what was formerly a natural flood plain and they gain an understandable sense of security in maintaining clear sight lines on potential predators headed their way on their nightly roost in the river. But the open river banks were made problematic by human priorities. Damning for both power generation and flood control ended the scouring effect of the seasonal rush of waters which removed the small plant starts from the shore every year.
The river shores in this one stretch of the Platte are now cleared by human action; bulldozing, bush hogging, chain sawing. This is done in the off season so that the birds are accommodated and put at ease upon their return. Seems only right since they were the ones who got first dibs here.
It’s an anxious time for the cranes since they are on a timeline to stock up and get north to reproduce during the tight window that is the arctic summer. The flocking behavior provides some vital function for them during this stopover. It must help to ease the anxiety. This safety in numbers thing and the natural comfort of being part of a large community puts me in mind of some kind of large summer music festival. On the Platte the birds provide their own soundtrack with their Sandhill burbling, their hoots and cackles.
This huge celebration of youth and music disbands after the reproduction cycle is completed. After a brief summer of mating, of nesting and nurturing their young up north they return south in relaxed fashion, in much smaller family knots.
On our way up there from western Kentucky we stopped in Kansas City and visited the Truman Presidential Library in Independence. It’s a shrine to a problematic individual. This mild mannered man with poor public speaking skills and a history as a failed businessman in the hat and oil trades also bears the responsibility of the decision to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese. There’s a weird irony in that personality making that particular decision. And the decision itself seems incomprehensible even as part of a practical expediency. A bookish Missouri farm boy becomes a presidential decision maker involving the use of atomic weapons on a civilian population, all tied to his nation’s psychology brutalized by the sufferings of war.
From there the highway north passes right in front of Leavenworth Prison which is a massive monument to the power of evil sitting in the prettiest, more benign and lovely Kansas river valley you ever saw. The walls of Leavenworth extend forty feet each direction from the ground. Forty feet up and forty feet down. Machine Gun Kelly and Bugs Moran did time there. So did Tom Pendergast after riding high for many years atop his pyramid of corruption as the Kansas City political boss and Truman mentor. The problem of evil is not just about bad guys. Good guys sometimes get into trouble just migrating through the problematic.
I look out my window this morning and see the bare tree branches quivering in a slight breeze. A bird’s shadow breaks across and then the bird itself appears. Within that brief moment of awareness my brain informed me of something irregular to the pattern (the shadow) which allowed my perception to anticipate what followed; the sighting the bird itself, then quickly incorporating that feathered creature into my visual field. If I wasn’t open to it I wouldn’t realize that a surprise happened. Typically, because of the stretch of time I have spent on this planet, I would just automatically build it into my pre-organized familiarity. It would just “sort of happen” and I would move on the more important stuff. As if that event itself wasn’t really important. This morning that bird really happened.
We lose the ability to be surprised as we age. And that’s not too surprising either. The long march of accumulated experience falls into pattern and becomes apparently predictable as time passes. Even novel interjections are de-mystified and flattened by this expectation of the ordinary.
Maybe this ability to be surprised is worth reconsidering. Maybe over time our natural astonishment about life needs to be augmented by a self-generated one. It seems that’s why bird watching is so engrossing. We allow ourselves an opportunity to set aside the knowledge that this is all familiar and open up to a different sense: All is Unexpected! Part of birding is seeing that rare bird of course. But in every bird-walk our joy in fulfilled when the stillness of the woods becomes animated. But first we must be open. Just because we opened our eyes by separating our eyelids doesn’t mean our eyes are open.
Assessment and categorization are automatic habits in us that proceed from surprise. We both desire surprise and also dispense with it as quickly as possible. Something strange is going on. When we get in “naturing mode” by heading out to the woods, by quieting ourselves, by letting our eyes dilate slightly, we beg for surprise. But just as quickly as it happens, as the bird finally appears, we change into the organizer of experience, we say “That’s a House Finch.” Because not to do this would be not to close the circle. But to close a circle is not to end our path around it. I’ve started thinking of this circle as the circle of effort and awe.
There are two goals in experience; to gain understanding through effort and to increase our awareness through awe. The trick is to keep our brain ready to move. Proceeding all too quickly from surprise into analysis is just the way we are wired. Survival relies on bringing the unexpected into comprehension, mainly to evaluate threat or to recognize possible reward.
Moving the other way takes practice. Disengaging ourselves from the identifying labels that we paste on experience, realizing that we have only managed to brush up against a small part of the surface of what we can know about something, turns us back towards awe. With practice we can remember the limitations that our categorizations impose. The sense of novelty is dependent on us as much as on fresh sensation. The deeper investigation of life relies on reanimating this cycle of wonder.
As totality approached the light around us dimmed. At first this progressed in a kind of familiar way, like when the sky gets hazy. But then in the final ten minutes the quality of light became very unique. It wasn’t “sort of like” anything I’d ever seen. The set of wavelengths that came off that final sliver of sun allow an ordinarily unseen band of color to emerge in the visual spectrum, one that is reserved for just these occasions.
The blue sky shifted to a deep cool gray. The clouds on the horizon turned sunset rose. The air cooled.
I glanced through the eclipse glasses at the disappearing sliver of sun and then back at the rapidly darkening landscape. Back and forth. Fast changes. Sundown on time lapse.
Then it was dark. I looked up without the glasses and saw the diamond ring. That moment was fleeting, treasured, spectacularly beautiful.
And then we were in the totality.
A black disc with petals of brilliant corona was now above us. So extraordinary. An underserved gift. Then we saw Venus. We talked about the light as being “not quite night.” Then for another minute nothing changed. The small crowd we were in was buzzing and “whooping” and I joined in. I gave Stefanie an eclipse kiss.
A great wave of gratitude and peace came over me. I was fortunate to share it all with family. Wendell Berry said the religious impulse has much to do with our response to underserved gifts. So it does.
I look up at the trees each fall and try to understand how the leaves hold on. Is there a particular sap that makes each leaf stick to each branch? Some kind of glue manufactured that’s known only to that tree? And when does each one find the moment of release?
I see certain trees giving them up early. The first week of real chill sets certain trees off into a flurry of leaf shedding. Others hold out. Oaks in particular. They don’t turn autumn color until late in the process. They don’t give up the fall of their leaves until hard and persistent cold settles in. Even so they need the wind.
My sycamore waits a good long stretch into the turn of cold before it gives them up, these shells of once-green leaves that shaded my front porch all summer. I watch the progress. Other trees blow off early. My sycamore holds on tight to the leaves through these early winds. Until sub-zero temperatures force them to curve and loose color. Spells of higher winds early in the season take care of the easier pickings on softer wooded trees. These other trees are easily blown.
After a good five inches of snow and three days of temperatures in the twenties, my sycamore looks like its about ready to cave. The leaves are withered and brown now. All the chlorophyll has been sucked down the stem back into the root and the remnant husk hangs curled and vulnerable on the twig.
Now we wait for the next wind. An approaching season of winter has a live memory in me and I know it is not far off. The next curve of a front from the north will bring the wind with it. The winter wind will do the task where autumns winds only tell prophetic stories. The next wind is sure to make mine a blown tree.
Tonight I watched the moon rise in the trees. I sat on the porch in comfort with the evening breeze and a full easy moon rising. In the beginning it was a group of yellow flickering lights in a dense branch as the wind twittered the leaves. I drifted into wonder as I could now see the moon moving slowly on to other openings. Brighter lights gained strength in the flickering. Then gradually a slight arc appeared on one side as it showed a dignified curve through a larger gap. Another minute and the curve slid back behind more dark leaves. Here the moon became a constellation. I tried to count the moon stars in slowly shifting numbers… ten, fifteen, then twenty stars flashing on and off, sparkles moving higher in the sky. It sparkled like quiet fireworks. The motion of the moon… mostly lost when it sits locked in the timeless night sky. But a moonrise is a slow unfolding drama in time. And a moon rising in the trees adds a dance of light to this. I watched and waited as the moon now made its move towards final escape. The sparkling slowed and then stopped. The arc of its leading edge was coming clear of the tree. The high leaves on the top branches were now small silhouettes on the proud round stage. And then the yellow moon slipped free. And I watched one last leaf drift into the wings as the moonlit night began.