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An Autumn Respite on the River

Pale gray cranes in the fields along the road looked almost silver in the morning sunlight. The sky was clear blue, the autumn air was crisp but calm, and some three hundred sandhill cranes were quietly feeding in the gold-and-green mosaic of farm fields near the Leopold Memorial Reserve.

I pulled my car onto the shoulder of Shady Lane Road and raised my binoculars, then lowered them again, just long enough to stuff my cell phone into the glove box. What I didn’t need was a message to remind me that I should be at home, working. My month-end writing deadlines loomed, but I hadn’t been writing. Instead, I’d been sitting at my desk and ruminating over problems that seemed beyond my control: divisive politics, the climate, the national debt…and those were just the warm-up. So I took the only reasonable course of action and walked out the back door.

Now, in the field south of the road, a few cranes walked through the corn stubble with slow, somewhat jerky steps while others stood upright and still, as if keeping watch. Most of the birds, though, inched along with their heads down, gobbling up the waste grain that would help fuel their southward migration.

Photo by Ted Thousand

Two cranes on the hillside to my right, as if stirred by distant music, began to move. They unfurled their great wings and flapped as they ran ten or twelve bounding steps. Then, facing each other, they leapt and flapped by turns. The crane on the left executed a sort of curtsy, dipping its breast low to the ground while stretching its graceful neck and wings upward. Its mate responded by plucking up a brown stalk in its bill and blithely tossing it into the air.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the music seemed to stop. The dance ended and the cranes lowered their heads to resume feeding. I lowered my binoculars and did not resume ruminating. High-pitched bugles announced the arrival of three more birds. They came gliding toward the corn field, wings and necks outstretched, legs trailing behind, as I pondered the power of a few wild birds to restore my equilibrium. I watched for a few more minutes, then started for home, still unable to solve the world’s problems, but ready to do what I could.

The cranes I watched on Shady Lane Road were the vanguard of a vast gathering that we’ve come to anticipate in central Wisconsin each fall. Over the course of November, thousands more birds will arrive from their northern breeding grounds and pause on a stretch of the Wisconsin River that’s known not just as a migration stopover, but as the setting of A Sand County Almanac. After feeding in the fields all day, the birds will rise into the air and fly two or three miles to the river, where they’ll roost just upstream from the Leopold Shack.

Photo by Ed Pembleton

In November and December each year, a number of fortunate humans have the chance to spend an evening beside that stretch of river, under a sky filled with cranes. Around dusk, the air comes alive with flapping wings that snap and wave like banners on a breeze. Birds drift gently downward to the river’s sandbars and low, sandy banks. Just before landing, the cranes drop their feet and sweep their wings upward with a flourish that resembles a flamenco dancer twirling her skirts.

Leopold has described the sound for us: “High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries…” Indeed, the sound is so mighty that it seems to have a palpable weight – not burdensome, like a weight on one’s shoulders, but enveloping, like a thick blanket or an embrace. When the calls of a thousand cranes thunder through your body, it is nearly impossible to think about anything else. We might even briefly forget that 75 or 80 years ago a man walked along this same river bank, reflecting on the fate of sandhill cranes and other wild species.

Aldo Leopold bought his Sauk County farm in the midst of the Great Depression and the drought that induced the Dust Bowl; the world was at war during the years in which he wrote A Sand County Almanac. Surely the times in which he lived were as challenging as ours. Perhaps he ruminated as I do about what the future might hold – but that is not what I envision him doing on the weekends he spent with his family at the Shack.

Aldo, Carl, and Estella Leopold enjoying the Wisconsin River. Photo from the Leopold Archives.

I picture him following a skunk’s tracks in the snow, kneeling to inspect draba blossoms, or holding a tiny banded chickadee in his hand. I picture him absorbed in the natural world and at peace in those moments of absorption.

In the preface to her memoir, Stories from the Leopold Shack, Leopold’s daughter, Estella B. Leopold, observes that the family’s time at the Shack was “a reciprocal exercise in restoration – every weekend we worked on restoring the land; every weekend it restored us.”

Restored. That’s how I feel after an hour or two among sandhill cranes or after a walk in a place that I love. When my shoulders start to droop under the weight of the world, I try to remember that respite is as close as my back door. Whatever your work, however urgent the task, sometimes it helps to put down the saw and pause for breath.


Feature photo, top, courtesy of Robert Rolley.

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