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Know the West

Still Cranish After All These Years

Homo sapiens, evolution and becoming a crane


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.

But it's when they do their little hopping run and unfold those great wings and launch their improbability into the air, a hundred, a thousand at a time, then get aloft and straighten a thousand necks and beaks, and stream their legs out behind like an afterthought, and get to cruising altitude and cover continents with that great slow steady wingbeat, flying in Vs or Ws or strange shifting ideograms -- that is the essence of cranishness. With all my other cranish features coming out, I can't wait till I get my cranish wings. I dream of flying -- probably we all do, and they are exhilarating dreams; I wake up -- and come down, and, for that waking moment, I long for the time when I can trade the big brain for the big wings and really learn to fly, learn to really fly.

There's something else that makes humans cranish: We're all cultural animals to some extent -- which is to say, animals that pass along some of what we are through intergenerational teaching rather than just inbred instinct. (I say this makes us cranish, rather than saying it makes them more human -- they've been around so much longer than we have.) Unfortunately, recent situations in cranedom make one wonder if cultural transmission of important stuff is a good survival strategy.

This doesn't directly involve the thousands of sandhill cranes we see flying through every spring. It involves the cranes we don't see -- the sandhill's cousin, the whooping crane. A little larger than the sandhill crane, the whooper is cursed with brilliant white and black plumage, in contrast to the camouflage gray-browns of the sandhills. This made it attractive to the same kind of "hat hunters" that decimated the American beaver population. And it was also unlucky in its habitat selection, preferring Florida to Texas.

While the sandhill cranes continued to fly up and down the continent in hundreds of thousands, the whooping cranes dwindled to only 45 known cranes by the middle of the 20th century. Because it is a big bird, beautiful in its cranish way, its plight helped encourage the passage of the Endangered Species Act, which made humans the first species on earth ever to show evidence of really caring about its own impact on the rest of the planet.

A small industry has now evolved (I don't use the term loosely) around keeping whooping cranes alive as a species. It begins with nest raiders at the birds' last known brood site in southern Canada; cranes typically lay two eggs, but frequently only one chick survives. So one egg is heisted from each nest and taken to a crane-raising facility near Baraboo, Wis. There, the eggs are hatched and the chicks raised, through a process straight from a Dickens novel. These cranes are orphans, after all. How will they learn?

Specifically, cranes don't know where to migrate. The desire to migrate is apparently inbred, but the destination is cultural -- learned from the experience of accompanying the parental flock on its migration. And if there is no flock, there is no one to transmit that experience.

So how to teach young cranes where to go at migration time? When humans raise cranes, the cranes tend to bond to the people raising them -- which meant that the cranes are not the least bit interested in flying anywhere without their humans. They need to bond to something that ... flies. Something that could lead them in flying long distances. So William Lishman, a pilot of ultralight aircraft, came up with "Operation Migration." The idea was to bond fledgling whooping cranes to -- yes -- an ultralight aircraft. So from the time the cranes can struggle up onto those ungainly legs, they are fed and cared for by humans garbed entirely in white with crane-head puppets on their arms. Soon the white-garbed humans are whirring around them in machines that look and sound like ultralight aircraft. Then eventually the ultralight plane itself is brought in, leading them on short flights. The cranes grow up thinking this noisy little machine is their parent -- perhaps the evolutionary trade-off for having beautiful big wings and a small aerodynamic head.

And when it is time to migrate, to take that transcontinental trip to some winter place? The ultralight takes off, a flight of faith -- and the young cranes follow it into the air. They know they are supposed to go; they just don't know where. So off they fly with this human dressed like a Ku Kluxer in a silly little flying machine out of a Mad Max fantasy.

And I challenge anyone to watch this, or a video of this, without experiencing a need to surreptitiously wipe at your eyes. It is beautiful. It is also crazy. Absolutely crazy beautiful. Absolutely cranish.

I was almost embarrassed, leaving a viewing of the video of this, to find questions squirming into my mind. If we can devote this kind of altruistic and creative intelligence and money -- this isn't cheap -- to pea-brained birds with the wings of angels, why are we so helpless, so unimaginative, so unmoved, in the face of human poverty and destruction, the sufferings of our own kind? Why can't we or don't we apply that kind of creative intelligence to health care? Infrastructure? Education? Intercommunity, interracial, international conflict?

I have no answer for those questions. I can only throw out hypotheses like ropes with grappling hooks, hoping they catch on something. Perhaps  we as a species are all -- as Dylan Thomas put it -- "as mad as birds." Are birds mad -- cranes crazy? It's probably more accurate to say that cranes are just cranish. That once the cranes learn where to go, it's not crazy for them to fly there and back again every year, even if it means crossing whole continents. So by extension, for a member of Homo sapiens sapiens, understanding the craziness of lavishing love on birds while our own kind go wanting -- well, I'm losing the thread here, my end of the rope, in a cranish way: I can think, I want to think it through, but I don't know where to go with it.

There's something I keep thinking about when I ponder the way we seem to be, as the planet gets more crowded with us and our consequences -- a changing climate, the imminent terminal fever of petroleum supplies we don't know how to do without, out-of-control mad spending on foreign wars even as we slash public spending on our own well-being just when we most need the help, our inability to escape from a perpetual state of war against everything from terrorists to drugs to collateral citizenry -- all these things, none of which we seem to have the will to address. I keep thinking about what I said back at the beginning of this essay: I think about evolution. What will we be when we grow up? When or how do we learn where we're supposed to go?

Biologists have shown that there are species that never do actually grow up -- that is, they have no adult stage. These species live in environments so harsh that most of them never reach an adult stage of development; they only survive if they are able to breed in their immature forms. There's a subspecies of salamander found in some ponds in the high mountains near where I live that remains in its immature aquatic state all its life. It never trades its gills for lungs to go amphibious, to leave the water -- and it breeds that way. It is what biologists call a "neotenous" species: After a long enough time of breeding in immature stages, retaining its gills, it loses the capacity to lose its gills and become an adult able to live in two environments rather than one.

Now some biologists are suggesting (not very loudly) that we humans might be a neotenous species -- "the neotenous primate," as one of them puts it. Hundreds of thousands of years in the hot and cold deserts of the Ice Age were so hard on our species that we only survived through the breeding of adolescents -- basically, teen pregnancies. Most paleontologists agree that surviving to the age of 20 only a few hundred thousand years ago was like living to 60 or 70 today. A Hobbesian "poor, nasty, brutish, and short" life meant that few humans actually reached physical or psychological adulthood -- and over those tough millions of years, the scientists say, we may have lost whatever the characteristics would have been for Homo adultus.

I won't go into all the evidence that persuades some scientists that this is the case. But it includes physical conditions like our mostly hairless bodies and the relatively large head-to-body ratio that mature primates lose; and it includes psychological conditions like the persisting desire to learn (which other primates lose at an early age), and the lifelong need many of us have for a stern but loving "parent figure." You can extrapolate the political and religious implications there yourself.

Adulthood for humans has been generally summarized for most of us in the biblical verse from 1 Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." I don't know about you, but I raised two children, and was amazed -- horrified, actually -- at how the process of indoctrination we call "growing up" amounted to encouraging our kids, with materialistic carrots and sticks, to put away their curiosity, their eagerness to question, their desire to understand everything, their undisciplined but eager creativity. They retained some of it, of course, despite the best efforts of a politically driven education system, and remain maladjusted to that extent.

But what was picked up in place of what was put away? Is an adult just a non-child, one who has put aside the things that make humans interesting? The discourse in 1 Corinthians avoids that question; the next verse begins, "For now we see as through a glass, darkly." Indeed. Change the subject.

Back to "Operation Migration": Does it work? The short answer is yes; we won't know the long answer for a long time. Winter before last, a sedge of whooping cranes followed the funny little airplane all the way to a winter ground in Florida -- 30-mile days, with cooperating farmers lined up all the way -- and made it back to a Wisconsin breeding area for the summer. The population should grow, with the cranes taking care of one egg and humans taking care of the other. Theoretically, the mature whoopers will eventually take over for the airplane, and if their Florida home doesn't get subdivided, they might even begin to thrive again.

So there is something that works, sort of -- for cranes. I am Homo sapiens sapiens, thinking, thinking about how we might invest our big brains to help ourselves the way we are able to help the cranes. Well, my analogy just cracked, I think; I was about to say: "the way we are able to help the cranes invest their big wings in a fundamentally incomprehensible (some might say ridiculous) transcontinental flight to breed in a cold place they won't stay in long before flying back. ..." Is the adult state of Homo sapiens sapiens going to be something like that? Something that -- cranish? It's worked for the cranes for a long time. Does it matter that it is only beautiful?

The cranish people at least provide an alternative of sorts. Should I, should we, continue to follow these serious alpha types who thrust themselves upon us, insist that we let them lead, but whose sense of adulthood seems to be St. Paul crossed with the playground bully we learned as children to edge our way around? Or should we hang with cranish people who apply wonderful imagination to ideas for saving cranes from the rest of us? Between those extremes, who should we look to -- where is "the superman," the "ubermensch," the "oversoul"? Where do we go for the next us?

Maybe Paul Simon said it best: Still cranish, after all these years.