A Flying Village

Sandfill cranesI stopped on the bike ride today, down by the river, to watch and listen to an enormous flight of sandhill cranes, headed north. I played a bit with the words to describe it (I often “write” while I’m on the bike), but I didn’t come up with anything quite as crisp as Laura Paskus’s description of their “sloppy V.” (picture courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service – click through to hear ’em)

Up close, they’re ungainly, clumsy things, and when they fly, it’s such a disjointed mess sometimes that you wonder how they pull it off. Yet there they are, somehow finding the cohesiveness to ride a thermal higher in a squawking, ramshackle spiral, then head off north in that “sloppy V.”

I’m not as pessimistic as Laura about their future. I view them as a success, a species that we pushed near the brink and then helped pull back. My discomfort with the result is the mistaken belief that a flock of cranes wintering at the Bosque del Apache south of Albuquerque is “nature.” It is not. They would not be there but for engineering and corn. There is very little “nature” left, only things more or less influenced by our presence. In the case of the cranes, our presence nearly pushed them out of the system completely. Then we wisely spent some of our surplus creating an accommodation.

I enjoyed watching them leave, and look forward to their return next fall.


  1. Stop me if you’ve read “The End of Nature” by Bill McKibben. In the book he argues that nature/wilderness, which I remember him defining as the part of the world unchanged by the hand of humankind, is gone. With the human contribution to Global Warming, our finger prints are all over this planet. If I want to experience nature here in Alaska, I go out in the cold and look at the stars.

  2. Peter –

    I haven’t read McKibben, but I did just finish Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s “Break Through,” where they give a little Cliff’s notes discussion of McKibben, which is what got me thinking along this path.

    I keep musing on a blog post about all of this. We’ve got a great bit of nature here in the midst of town that I love to visit – the lovely woods along the river. We call it our “bosque.” But in the last several years I’ve been out in the bosque on a number of different occasions with biologists who were eager to explain how “unnatural” it is, the result of river channelization and flood control. Back before we started mucking with things, the Rio Grande did not have the long strip of woods we treasure today. At a political level, there is a powerful constituency that defends the bosque as our urban nature. But it is not.

    That said, when I want to experience nature, I still head out to the bosque. 🙂

  3. There’s no doubt nature ain’t what it used to be. When I was a kid here in Anchorage, it was rare to see a Canada Goose in the city, though they were common overhead. Over time, with the gradual spread of athletic fields, (read: Landing strips) they became first a nuisance and then deadly. Several were sucked into a jet’s engine and brought it down, killing around 20 people.
    Quite a few of the Geese took to breeding on an island near the airport. The authorities decided this wouldn’t do, and hired two ruthless goose assassins to liquidate their eggs. At the end of the summer the two assassins were executed themselves. Not to keep them quiet. They were pigs, and as they had grown plump on all those eggs, it was time for them to graduate to bacon. Thanks awfully, good job and all that.
    The punchline to this story? I happened into a conversation last summer with a teacher from Washington state. He would get summer employment during this same period doing what? Constructing Goose habitat to help more geese to go North to feed the pigs.

  4. In the plan I’m almost done with, in several places I describe it as the “natural” environment. This plan has been through literally hundreds of hands, and no one questions the quote around natural.

    Jus’ sayin’. Agreein’.



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