In the afternoon, they drove side by side, three abreast in the big Ford, and watched the land. When they came to a small rise on a gravel road between nowhere and nowhere, they slowed to a stop and lowered the windows. They sat there like they might be sitting their horses, or at a drive-in, or watching the end of the world, and saw no need to comment.
They looked across the stubbled field, and inside the bright circles of their binoculars, no one questioned the right of the cranes to be there. No one questioned their beauty.
The cranes stalked the spilled grain from the previous year and frowned. When they came to a cow pat, they flipped it over. As they walked, they lifted one foot at a time; lifted one and set it down, paused, lifted the other. They moved across the field in this manner, as if the ground was not what it promised to be, or walking something not to be trusted.
When the cranes flew up, it was the old machinery of the world lifting into the sky.
Nobody knows, of course, what beauty is, and yet everyone is adept at picking it out. Too often, however, it is reserved for grand vistas, the unique or very rare, the extremely large or small, as if beauty could not reside in something as common as a robin’s breast, as well-known as a squirrel.
On that spring day in Montana, windy with rumpled blue-bottomed clouds, two men and one woman had gone looking for beauty in the size and shape of sandhill cranes, and an excuse to be out on the land.
From Potomac, they drove east on Highway 200, a six-pack shared between them. Along the way, the driver pointed out details of the landscape with the brown glass of the bottle; the striped lines of igneous rock in the road cuts (the bottle nodded), the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area when it came into view. Just past Orvando, a pair of sparrows mated on a telephone wire. Spring.
The driver and the woman seated in the middle were familiar with the land, residents of the West, Montana and Wyoming, respectively. To the third, however, everything was new; the impromptu weather, fickle in its seeding of rain, and the fisted bundles of sage crowding the hillsides. Even the ponderosa pines were new, their heaven-propping arms holding up all that famous sky.
At a sign that said Helmville, they turned right. Shortly after, they parked the truck and climbed out near an oxbow of the North Fork, a tributary to the Blackfoot River. Immediately, whistling alarm calls came from three sides, sharp, clear, passing like razors at knee level. A black dog of mixed breed jumped from the back of the truck and, uncertain in which direction to charge first, looked to its owner. Another whistle, and three hands went up to shield eyes from the sun, a salute to the horizon, or so it seemed.
A prairie dog, the first the newcomer had ever seen, stood on its hind legs at the entrance to a burrow, forepaws tight to its chest as if clutching an invisible handbag. It stood straight, a tiny pillar, obelisk to nothing. Thistles choked the field around it and long spindles of yellow light plowed them into swaths of light and dark, casting shadows. Announcing troop movements, the prairie dog tipped its head back and whistled again, white throat to the sky.
The three walked for the good part of an hour, chatting, bantering, careful not to twist an ankle in the many burrows, letting the dog roam. Coming near the river, they flushed a handful of Canada geese, saw a magpie, a number of flickers. A raven, then another, went by. Miracles in their own right.
Everyone knows that each day is like a grain of sand in an hourglass that once turned over can never be turned back — that the trick, if there is one, is not to let a single grain go by unnoticed. Arriving back at the truck, the three boarded and drove south, loose gravel crunching under the rubber tires. Copper light filled the cab and yet, despite their best efforts, a small disappointment came with it, settled in, shoulder to shoulder, awkward as a fourth passenger. Where were the cranes? Then they crested the small rise.
In the brown field, the two cranes wandered with soda-straw legs bent backwards like elbows, corkscrew necks turning over their shoulders. Even in that vast landscape they looked large, larger than birds are supposed to be. The bright patch of red on their heads was the only vibrant color for miles. They watched one crane leap into the air, pedalling wings in a silent pantomime.
Among the observers it was known that cranes were monogamous, that they mated for life, and it was at this point something wistful was said, softly. Later, the three stepped from the truck and leaned with forearms on a fence rail to watch another two pairs.
It is impossible to say, of course, if we live in a moral universe. Attention to beauty, like attention to detail, is not listed anywhere as a commandment. Granted, the spectacle of five thousand cranes mixing like snowflakes is a worthy sight, a spectacle, an honest hope. But a handful of cranes, one prairie dog?
As the three squeezed for the last time into the cab of the truck, it was understood that another day had slipped by. They felt this, a tightness between the shoulders. As they drove home, talk meandered like the river and turned to what kind of wine they might buy. Meanwhile, a pair of vultures lifted from the side of the road, and in the distance a line of clouds turned lavender, then pink.
Charles Finn writes from Missoula, Montana.