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The Prairie in Her Eyes
By Ann Daum
Milkweed EditionsCopyright © 2003 Ann Daum
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THE HABIT OF RETURN
Last night I was wakened by the voices of sandhill cranes. The sound came through the glass of my window and woke me slowly, into another kind of dream. A flock of cranes makes a rippling kind of music, like the echo of an echo, a fluttering and tapering off to silence. There is no other sound like it. I sat up slowly and looked outside.
At first I saw only stars and the moon's pale glow rising from the east. I looked at the clock--nine o'clock. I must have just fallen asleep. I thought I saw shadows moving outside the window, against the moonlight, but I wasn't sure. I'd never heard of sandhill cranes flying by night. I crept outside in my nightclothes, barefoot onto a dew so cold it burned my feet. The sky was a whirlpool of cranes, their voices coming from all around. I stood in the center of it, looking up. I remember thinking that if the stars had voices they might sing like this.
I stood there until the last unseen crane had passed, intent on her invisible arc from spring resting grounds in Nebraska to nesting sites farther north. The voices lingered in the darkness, coming from all directions and none, before fading away. The frost had melted under my feet; I traced my footprints back intothe house.
Sandhill cranes keep returning to find home roosts plowed under or slathered with concrete--their home is shrinking. They have had to adjust more in the last hundred years than in the millions since the Pliocene when they evolved.
The cranes now roost on only a tiny stretch of their former habitat along Nebraska's North Platte River. Water needed to keep the Platte's channel wide and clear enough for cranes has been diverted for other uses. Meadows needed by the cranes for their macroinvertebrate life--their snails and earthworms and insects--are being plowed under or developed. And while new stretches of cornfields are providing cranes with previously undreamed of sources of energy, corn can't replace the protein and calcium found in the native grassy soil.
Cranes now spend equal portions of their day foraging for the 3 percent of their diet formed by macroinvertebrates as they do seeking the 97 percent of their diet made up of corn. They roost and forage wing to wing, crowded in their shrinking world.
For the better part of the past ten years I have been moving between school, work, and travel--arriving home to my family's South Dakota ranch in time for foaling and calving season in the spring and leaving after harvest in the fall. And every year, like the birds, I see the places I know and that I call home changing and shrinking and crumbling away.
When I was a little girl, my father ran cattle and farmed on 30,000 acres owned in a partnership with his brothers Ned and Pete. In the late eighties, the partnership split up, leaving my family with 13,000 acres, my childhood universe. Now that universe has shrunk again. We have managed to hold on to only 4,000 of those acres, and almost all of them are leased out to a neighbor now. My parents are retired, and I live together with them in our ranch house by the river. From the living-room window we can now see across to land owned by someone else. We have kept 130 acres out of the lease for me and my twenty horses. It doesn't seem like much compared to what we had, but it is enough.
This losing of a ranch is considered a kind of shame. All over South Dakota, farmers and ranchers are going out of business and running out of hope. I've heard the story before. But living it hurts. Talking about the loss doesn't seem to do much good. These days, when my cousins talk about the wind and weather, wheat and cattle prices, they look at the toes of their boots or out the window. I want to look away.
* * *
Two days later, on the first of April, cranes fill the sky--hundreds, thousands, all flying north in billowing, V-shaped threads. I stand outside and look up. Sometimes the threads weave together and the whole skyful of cranes comes together and begins to circle. They float like leaves in a dust devil--a funnel of birds reaching halfway across the sky. The sky here is not too wide for so many cranes.
All day they pass over the White River valley. They speak to each other constantly in flight, so that a passing flock of sandhill cranes sounds like distant singing--a chorus sung in rounds, again and again. While I am standing, looking up, one crane passes lower than the rest, at about the height of the top branches of a cottonwood tree. I can see the patch of red on his crest, the spear-shaped beak and narrow, silver neck. He sees me, too, and I imagine he wishes he were higher up.
When I drive to Okaton to get my mail, I keep scanning the sky for cranes. I don't see any from the topland. I drive back a little faster than I should. Storm clouds are piling in the south and east, and as I drop into the valley, the sun highlights another moving string of cranes.
There will be snow tonight, and the wind is beginning to blow, flattening the yellow stems of last year's grasses. Snow in western South Dakota blows sideways into hard, no-color drifts. I wonder, sometimes, why the birds bother coming back this way at all. But birds are stubborn, like the people here. They have the habit of return, I suppose, but the habit seems a little bit like love. They keep coming back.
Excerpted from The Prairie in Her Eyes by Ann Daum Copyright © 2003 by Ann Daum. Excerpted by permission.
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