Driving Nebraska

March 28, 2015

Sunrise near Kearney, Nbraska

Sunrise near Kearney, Nebraska

Nebraska is flat!  I was struck by the wide open landscape and the dearth of trees.  You could understand why early settlers resorted to building sod houses, for wood is scarce.  When we saw trees,  often cottonwoods,  it signaled a river or natural water source.

Nebraska landscape along I-80

Nebraska landscape along I-80

The Great Platte River Road

The Great Platte River Road

Sun halo (sun dog) we saw at a rest stop along I-80

Sun halo (sun dog) we saw at a rest stop along I-80

Huge fields with nary a farmhouse in sight

Huge fields with nary a farmhouse in sight

Irrigation machinery

Irrigation machinery

A whimsical Nebraska practice -- capping fence posts with old, discarded boots

A whimsical Nebraska practice — capping fence posts with old, discarded boots

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Power lines across the Nebraska landscape, near sunrise

Power lines across the Nebraska landscape, near sunrise

Nearing sunrise, Nebraska

Nearing sunrise, Nebraska

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When we left Kearney, we drove north and west through the sandhills of Nebraska.  This is the mid-grass prairie, but the grass grows in clumps rather than in waving expanses, on undulating low hills.  It is range country.  I was surprised to see windmills dotting the range every couple of miles.  I was also surprised at the hundreds of ponds and rainwater basins dotting the land, many with sapphire blue water.

Sandhills (with pronghorn)

Sandhills (with pronghorn)

Horse with cotonwoods

Horse with cottonwoods

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The ubiquitous windmill

The ubiquitous windmill

Sandhill region of Nebraska

Sandhill region of Nebraska

I had not seen such natural blue water since Crater Lake.

I had not seen such natural blue water since Crater Lake.

Train tracks (we saw so many trains carrying coal -- I counted 120 coal cars on one train.)

Train tracks (We saw so many trains carrying coal — I counted 120 coal cars on one train.)

 

 

 

 

“I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes.”
— Lynn Thomas, Birding with Yeats

Birdwatchers along the Fort Kearney Historical  Recreation Site bridge

Birdwatchers along the Fort Kearney Historical
Recreation Site bridge

A "V" of  sandhill cranes in flight over the Platte River

A “V” of sandhill cranes in flight over the Platte River

“Watching Sandhill Cranes”
by William Stafford, from Even in Quiet Places

Spirits among us have departed — friends,
relatives, neighbors; we can’t find them.
If we search and call, the sky merely waits.
Then some day here come the cranes
planing in from cloud or mist — sharp,
lonely spears, awkwardly graceful.
They reach for the land; they stalk
the ploughed fields, not letting us near,
not quite our own, not quite the world’s.

People go by and pull over to watch.  They
peer and point and wonder.  It is because
these travelers, these far wanderers,
plane down and yearn in a reaching
flight.  They extend our life,
piercing through space to reappear
quietly, undeniably, where we are.

The car can be a useful blind for watching skittish birds

The car can be a useful blind for watching skittish birds

Bird watchers gather for the massive return to the roost at sunset.

Bird watchers gather for the massive return to the roost at sunset.

My trip to Nebraska to witness the Spring sandhill crane migration was greatly enhanced by traveling with knowledgeable companions.  My brother and sister-in-law are both biologists and bird watchers and they know a lot about birds and habitat.

And they are experts at finding birds.  One morning we rose before dawn to find a prairie chicken lek.  They had done some research and we spent the previous afternoon scouting out spots where we might see these grouse.  They are most active at sunrise.  Sure enough, my brother found a lek with about a dozen prairie chickens, mostly colorful males and some females.  We watched through binoculars and a scope as the birds strutted and stomped and leaped.  They were much too far away to photograph through my zoom lens.  (You can find some video clips on You Tube.)

One of the great things about traveling with bird watchers is that they are extremely motivated to get up in the wee hours before sunrise to be in place for the dawn, or to be sure to be outside near sunset, when birds are often most active.  Fortunately for me, these were also the times of the day when the light was best for photography.

Before sunrise on the Platte River, from a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Before sunrise on the Platte River, from a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Birdwatching from the blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Birdwatching from the blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Birdwatcher shadows

Birdwatcher shadows

The rewards of being outside t sunset -- Sandhill cranes flock to the Platte River.

The rewards of being outside at sunset — Sandhill cranes flock to the Platte River.

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

 

“The blood-red head bows and the wings sweep together, a cloaked priest giving benediction.”
— Richard Powers, The Echo Maker

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”
— Also Leopold, from “Marshland Elegy,” A Sand County Almanac

Their beauty may lie beyond words, but as I was reading about sandhill cranes in preparation for my trip to Nebraska, I came across so many wonderfully descriptive and poetic passages by expert writers.  Sometimes the writing was as lyrical and beautiful as the physical birds.  While I was crane watching, it was rewarding to overlay my observations with these writers’ words.

” . . . in the faint light of the new day, I could see cranes downriver, emerging from the water like the pilings of some abandoned, improbable ruin.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

Early morning on the Platte River; view from a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Early morning on the Platte River; view from a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

“The cranes stood like a congregation in the shallows of the river.  I could see their long necks now, could watch them stalk about as if on tiptoe, could observe them stretching and settling their wings.  Already some of their brethren from the sandbar farther south had taken flight, heading from the river to the fields nearby to feed for the day.  They showed the characteristic profile of the cranes, necks straight out, legs tucked in, feet trailing behind like rudders.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

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“Into this single field were crowded tens of thousands of cranes, standing in gray ranks like weathered corn. . . . Hundreds more were landing every minute, planing down at a shallow angle, bugling and calling.  When an especially large flock would begin its approach, the clamor was almost deafening, as the incoming birds sideslipped and tumbled like falling leaves, spilling air from their wings, then straightening out an instant before impact and thumping down, one after another.”
— Scott Weidensaul, Living on the Wind:  Across the Hemisphere with Migrating Birds

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Morning dawns accompanied by the unbroken clamor of the cranes.

Morning dawns accompanied by the unbroken clamor of the cranes.

“At the rim of the horizon, the sky began to lighten.  The sound of the birds was hauling up the curtain of the day.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

” . . . the primeval sound rushed in, halfway between a croak and a song, the music of dry bones rattling.  It surged and fell in a regular rhythm, like waves of water washing against a shore. . . . The sound of the sandhill cranes is like the roaring of the sea in a conch shell; when you have finally heard it, you recognize that you have always known it.  It is like the cry of a loon or the howling of wolves or the warning rattle of a snake, an article in the universal language.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

“Crane chorusing can only remind one of listening to an amateur performance of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ as chaotically sung by a vast assemblage of tone-deaf but enthusiastic lovers of fine music.”
— Paul A. Johnsgard, Sandhill and Whooping Cranes:  Ancient Voices Over America’s Wetlands

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“The thousands of cranes . . . rose into the air as one body, the force of their wings sounding against the weight of the air like the rolling of a thousand snare drums.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane shortly after taking to the air

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane shortly after taking to the air

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“The daily return of the cranes to the [Platte] river near sunset is not so much a sudden explosion as a gradual build-up of tension and beauty, in a manner resembling Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’  As the western skies redden, the cranes fly up and down the river, calling with gradually increasing urgency, evidently trying to decide where they might safely spend the night. . . . The decision to land is finally made by a few adventuresome souls, and the rest of the birds tumble in behind, all calling at the tops of their lungs.”
— Paul A. Johnsgard, Sandhill and Whooping Cranes:  Ancient Voices Over America’s Wetlands

IMG_1518“A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.”
— Archibald MacLeish, from “Ars Poetica”

 

 

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“Yea, the stork in heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming.”
— Jeremiah 8:7

“Every year 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes — 80 percent of all the cranes on the planet — congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska, to fatten up on waste grain in the empty cornfields in preparation for the journey to their Arctic and subarctic nesting grounds.  This staging is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles, on par with the epic migrations of the wildebeest and the caribou.”
–Alex Shoumatoff, “500,000 Cranes Are Headed for Nebraska in One of Earth’s Greatest Migrations,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2014

 

Sandhill cranes return to the Platte River

Sandhill cranes return to the Platte River

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“Bird migration is the one truly unifying phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. . . . the most compelling drama in all of natural history.”
— Scott Weidensaul, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migrating Birds

I felt very privileged to have witnessed this dramatic migration of the sandhill cranes this Spring.  Scientists have given a lot of thought to how bird migration works — the urge to move vast distances is instinctual and genetically programmed in part.  Birds follow some combination of sun by day, stars by night, earth’s magnetic field, polarized light, landmarks.  To me it is a mystery and a wonder and a metaphor for the ebbs and flows of human life.  Cranes represent good fortune and longevity.

The Spring migration of sandhill cranes is particularly concentrated in the area of the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island, Nebraska because this is the remaining good habitat for refueling on their return to the north to breed — a wide shallow river, nearby cornfields for foraging waste corn.

“Migration is, fundamentally, about food, not temperature.”
— Scott Weidensaul, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migrating Birds

This habitat has been shrinking.  It gives one pause to consider how man has encroached upon and threatened one of nature’s most massive migrations.  This is certainly a phenomenon worth preserving for our children and grandchildren.

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes in flight

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“I search out the cranes every spring for precisely this reason:  because they can be counted upon, because their lives are predictable, their movements regular, and their habits ordered.  It is as comforting to know that the cranes have come back to the Platte in March as to feel the blood pulsing through the veins in my own wrists.  It is a tangible sign that all is still well with the world.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

“We ourselves seldom comprehend the moment at hand.  So we turn to history, the one element of our lives it is possible to fix on.  Or we turn to principle.  Or we turn to nature.  There we find, amid the silence and mystery, order and structure, the sense that life is not simply random.  The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west.  Pasque flowers bloom in April and prairie gentians in September and never the reverse.  The spiral of the shell of the right-handed pond snail is always logarithmic.  In March the sandhill cranes always return to a certain meadow northwest of North Platte, Nebraska.  These are truths we can depend on.”
–Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes in flight

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“Passage”
by Deborah Cummins, from The Poets Guide to the Birds, edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser

Once more, in their dumb unknowing,
sandhill cranes are pulled to a place
they must again and again get back to.
I lean on a rake and scan the sky
for their small Chinese brushstrokes arrowing blue.
But it’s their wild, wondrous sound
that pierces me, their high trill
more thrilling than two young deer that at dawn
incised our lawn with their slender hooves,
lured by the dwarf apples’ windfall.

Wherever the cranes’ journey ends,
some shoreline probed by assiduous tides,
my garden’s just another particular
and less important than the prairies, hills
or rivers the cranes clamor over,
all breath and billow and creaking pinions,
their passage as compelled and unyielding
as the thump a ripe apple makes
falling.  And quick
as that sound, the cranes are here, then not.
I’m left with dirt and rake.

As a child, I lay awake
in the colorless dark and waited for dawn’s oncoming
freight, its whistle’s single mournful whine.
How that last especially when it was cold, hung
in the air of my room, our house,
above the river thick with ice, the hills beyond.
I didn’t understand but knew.
Not the sound, but the ache after.

 

 

“The very flight of birds is a writing waiting to be read.”
— Loren Eiseley

Cranes at sunset, from the bridge at Fort Kearney Historical Recreation Area

Cranes at sunset, from the bridge at Fort Kearney Historical Recreation Area

“The Sand Hill Cranes”
by Lola Haskins, from The Poets Guide to the Birds, edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser

The blue air fills with cries of regret.
The cranes are streams, rivers.
They danced on the night prairie,
leapt at each other, quivering.

The long bones of sand hill cranes
know their next pond.  Not us.
When something is too beautiful
we do not understand to leave.

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes returning to the Platte River at sunset

Sandhill cranes returning to the Platte River at sunset

“Migration of the Sandhill Cranes
Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona”
by Alison Hawthorne Deming, from  “Short Treatise on Birds”

Perhaps they would forgive us our
greed if they lived with moral codes.
Instead they take our leavings, corn-
fields crowded with migrants ’till they
rise, wheel, stream apart in columns
then join again.  If they have a
purpose, it must be communal
flight, swarms that meet to read the sky.

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes in flight

Bird watchers gather for the evening move to the roosts near the Rowe Sanctuary

Bird watchers gather for the evening move to the roosts near the Rowe Sanctuary

 

Old Farms, Abandoned

March 23, 2015

Abandoned farmhouse with swing set

Abandoned farmhouse with swing set

Window, abandoned farmhouse

Window, abandoned farmhouse

Steps to cellar

Steps to cellar

Barn ruin

Barn ruin

 

“Abandoned Farmhouse”
by Ted Kooser, from Flying at Night: Poems 1965 – 1985

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard.  Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child?  Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm — a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls.  Something went wrong, they say.

 

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