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for people who care about the West

The way the West was can be seen again


Back when I was a boy, we used to roll our eyes at tiresome coots who would begin reminiscences with "Back when I was a boy..."

Today, as my 50s draw toward a close, I somehow find myself with a lot more sympathy for old-timers. I admit that recollections can be boring. And yet, as a naturalist, I spend a lot of time encouraging people to imagine the natural world as it once was and perhaps could be again -- healthy, wild and whole. But to really do that right, we need time machines.

Fortunately, time-machine tickets are available throughout the West, offered for the price of a few days' drive. The most well-known is probably Yellowstone National Park, where herds of bison and elk, the howling wolves and the bubbling mud pools transport us back to a world that we can imagine is unchanged since the Pleistocene.

The awe-inspiring abundance of wild America also survives in more humble surroundings.  Take Kearney, Neb., for instance.  A typical Great Plains small town, its grain silos and fast food restaurants caught in a web of highways and power lines, Kearney seems an unlikely place for transcendence.  But it can be found here every spring, just a few miles out of town.

Every March, the largest concentration of sandhill cranes in the world crowds into a 30-mile stretch of the Platte River. They come here to fatten up for a few weeks on waste corn before resuming their journey to tundra breeding grounds that range from Canada to eastern Siberia.

One crane, all by itself, makes the world wild. What bird can match its dignity and calm deliberation, so powerfully matched with its thrilling call and the ecstatic abandon of its mating dances?  That wildness, joined in flocks of tens of thousands, in turn gathered into a multitude that can reach half a million birds, tears aside the curtains that enclose our everyday lives, and sends us back to a time that, left to ourselves, we could never imagine.

My fellow time-travelers and I arrived at the Rowe Sanctuary on the Platte River in the late afternoon, while the cranes were still scattered across the harvested fields. Our observation blind was perched above a series of sandbars that are regularly scraped clean by the stewards of the sanctuary, doing the work of nature in these days of depleted river flows. The sandbars offer safe roosting places for the cranes, but only if they are free of entangling vegetation.

Paradoxically, it takes endless care to maintain wildness in the modern world. But it can be done: The Nebraska cranes teach us that.

The sunset was one of the most extraordinary I have ever seen, painting the horizon gold, then apricot and lavender. On cue, the cranes began to gather, filling the world with an extraordinary music.  And what is the sound of this sonata for 50,000 cranes?  It lacks melody.  It lacks harmony.  It is a bugle, it is the croak of a frog, it is a slow ripping of canvas, it builds, it gathers, it is a lamentation, an ecstasy, a roar.  It pressed us to the earth, speechless.

Finally, the color drained from the sky, and the birds began to crowd the sandbars, forming billowing groves of cranes.  By last light, they were a solid forest, grown to fill the shallows between the islands, their toes rooted in the moving river, their crowns tossed by the wind in their blood. Above the Platte, the Big Dipper stood upright on its tail, as if it had spilled out this flood of life.

We walked back to the buses in silence, very different from the excited chatter of our outward hike.  The night sky became the color of iron, an iron bell that continued to resound in the darkness, with the echo of a world that only our short memory calls ancient, that only our self-regard finds astonishing.

There is an age-old phenomenon that has recently acquired a name --"shifting baselines."  This describes the natural tendency of each generation to accept the world they inhabit as normal, as the baseline against which change is to be measured.  In terms of nature, this means that the character of wildness in the land, or the abundance of wildlife in our lives, once lost, is not missed -- cannot be missed -- by those who have never experienced it.

As an antidote, I offer this: Go to Yellowstone or Nebraska in the spring, to your local national wildlife refuge in the fall. Jump in your nearest time machine, and go.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].