Still Cranish After All These Years

Homo sapiens, evolution and becoming a crane

  • Sandhill crane in flight over Nebraska's South Platte River.

    Joel Sartore
  • Whooping cranes follow an ultralight aircraft they take to be their parent in Operation Migration.

    Heather Ray, Operation Migration Inc.
  • COVER Composite image of sandhill crane and moon. Mark

    Newman/Stock Connection/Aurora
 

The year I first noticed the cranes, we'd moved from a mountain town to a mountain valley without a town -- a little watershed that, about a half-mile below the sawmill where we were living, dropped abruptly into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River in a lovely little waterfall. From the bedroom in our cabin, I could see the cliffs on the far side of the canyon. It made me think of Nietzsche: "Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman -- a rope over an abyss."

I was thinking a lot about evolution then -- still am. Wondering why it takes so long, why a species that changes culturally more than it changes physically sometimes doesn't seem able to change at all. What dark physiological tangles keep us from being the beings our minds can imagine us being?

It was our first spring there, in that little valley on the edge of the abyss, when we saw the cranes -- the first time my kids and I saw them, anyway; they'd been around for more than 10 million years, but I just hadn't noticed. They were overnighting at a little reservoir nearby, maybe a hundred of them, and we stopped to watch. It looked like a lot of birds to us, but I've since learned that it was next to nothing; a few air miles farther, up on the sunny side of Grand Mesa, many hundreds of sandhill cranes gather nightly every spring at Fruitgrowers Reservoir. And I've been to the wildlife refuge down below Monte Vista, in the San Luis Valley, and seen thousands of them assembled there -- but I have also heard that that's next to nothing compared to the tens of thousands that visit Nebraska's Platte River Valley on their way north.

Once we'd seen them, we began to hear that faint gabbling warble from the sky: "Cranes, Dad!" the cry would come, and we'd watch another flyover of the big birds. From the bird book, we learned they were probably on their way to Canada, maybe even Alaska. Once there, they would nest with their mates and raise a chick, maybe two. Then come fall, they would fly all the way back down to Texas or New Mexico or Old Mexico, to spend the winter. These great birds probably spend a fifth of their lives in flight, and another two-fifths of it getting ready to fly. And they have been doing this for a long time -- a 10 million-year-old volcanic fossil bed in Nebraska has skeletons virtually identical to the skeletons of the sandhill cranes that still stop there twice a year. So I think about evolution: Are the cranes done evolving?

But this story is not just about cranes. I am Homo sapiens sapiens, which I take to mean roughly "man who thinks and thinks, maybe thinks too much." What can I say -- if I had big wings like a crane, I would fly; if the crane had a big brain like me and no wings, the crane would probably think, maybe even imagine having wings. But the crane has a small compact brain in a small aerodynamically efficient head, a head almost as narrow as his ridiculous neck, both of which he locks in a straight line with an outsize beak that splits the wind around him as he flies. The crane flies, but I am Homo sapiens sapiens: Therefore I think, whatever I am.

One thing I thought about this year, watching the cranes, is how "cranish" I seem to be becoming, the older I get. I mean physically: long scrawny neck separated from long scrawny legs by a little potbelly of a body -- and the beak, and the bald red forehead -- although mine only gets red when I'm thinking too hard, or angry. Remember Ichabod Crane? Washington Irving knew about cranishness.

But one way in which I am not becoming more cranish is the wings. And the wings are what a crane is all about. A six-, seven-foot wingspread. Where do they keep those wings? To see the birds striding around, or standing still -- I saw a whole field of them down at the Monte Vista refuge, all talking and paired off but all facing south, like they were at a rock 'n' roll concert waiting for the band to show -- seeing them at rest, you don't even suspect that they have wings. Then a couple of them will start dancing, or maybe a group of them, and I've heard that sometimes most of them will start dancing, and when they dance, they show each other their wings, which probably has some kind of parallel in cranish human behavior.

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