I've lived in Nebraska since 2003, but only during the last three springs have my wife and I driven 90 minutes west to a choke point on the Platte River. Here, millions upon millions of birds migrate through each year. The first year it was a cloudy, cold day, and we were just floored by the number, size, and haunting call of the cranes in the corn fields -- these are here, in NEBRASKA? The following year, it was sunny and the cranes seemed restless and sparse. This year we set out in the late afternoon aiming for the time when, just before sunset, tens of thousands flock to the Platte to roost for the night among lost friends and family.
On the I-80 exit for Grand Island we found snow geese. People were pulling over off the interstate to see this large group.
We stood there in the unseasonable cold (it's snowing today, should be 55), watching the massive flotilla hold tight to the center. After a few minutes I felt shamefully bored. I'd marveled at the geese flying above my house for weeks, headed west toward the Platte migration area. Then suddenly my wife whispers "oh look look look" and a wave of hundreds, thousands rise up in a cacophony of alarm, or as if an itch went through one side of the lake. Up they rose and settled again like a blanket being placed over a bed. Amazing. They did this several times.
We drove the back fields for cranes. Their calls surrounded every nook and cranny of the otherwise quiet back country. Some danced, spreading their long wings and lifting a few feet, settling, and lifting again. They've come for hundreds of thousands of years, just as the sun has risen and set. By god I hope they come for a hundred thousand more. Looking at the linear fields, the center pivots, the grain silos, the roads and transmission lines, it doesn't seem possible that this wildness can overtake our stilted creation. This drives some people mad. For others, it lifts them for a moment beyond their self-imposed rules and reminds them that being human is being animal, connected to the earth and not something apart -- and so it is deeply right.
We drove for an hour before sunset, trying to find a good place to park, to pinpoint the landing of the first flocks. 20 minutes before sunset and they came from the south -- line after line after line headed for the Platte a mile north. Finally we parked in the middle of a two lane paved road with one eye in the rear view mirror, another to the west where a shadowed tree line seemed to lift off the ground and push north -- a forest of wings.
I admit I left feeling unfulfilled. I want to go back. I want to live there. I want to know the world more by knowing the seasons more, like this season of migration. I wanted to see the birds land on the Platte, but they stayed a mile east of the viewing platform (for good reason, as it was filled with cameras). But in the silence of an empty road the sky was literally filled with cranes -- bodies and voices, echoes of echoes as far as the eye could see. As this late snow falls I remember the centering I felt as a kid in Minnesota, alone outside during a storm, everything soundless, distances distorted through the white haze so I only knew the small space where I was in that moment. Sometimes I feel this in my small garden as I pass my arm over an aster or joe pye weed, when hundreds of insects rise up and settle again in the silent focus of their purpose. I pray in nature. I pray when I don't know it. I pray hope and faith that I will not be the only one to know such moments of agony and rapture out here in these rows of corn.