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WILD WEST / Susan Tweit

The pull of time and place

Migrating sandhills, like humans, return to the landscapes that tug insistently at them.

October 04, 2005|Susan Tweit | Susan J. Tweit is the author of, most recently, "The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes," from which this essay is adapted. Her website is susanjtweit.com.

Salida, Colo. — THE CRANES CALLED to me one windy September night. I lay on the couch, absorbed in a novel when a distant sound -- compelling, familiar -- propelled me upright. There it was again, faint but unmistakable: "Khrrrrr, Khrrrrr," the throaty cry of sandhill cranes.

I rushed outside to search the sky, but it was too dark to pick out the long-necked and wide-winged forms against the star-studded blackness.

Their voices sounded again from high overhead: "Khrrrrr, Khrrrrr!" as they called back and forth, their tremulous cries a vocal tether linking the flock as they migrated through the night.

Although I couldn't see the huge birds, I knew where they were headed -- to the San Luis Valley.

Twice a year, sandhill cranes pass high over our small Rocky Mountain town on annual journeys that span the continent. These 4-foot-tall birds wing 1,000 or more miles from nesting grounds as far north as Alberta and British Columbia to wintering habitats as far south as northern Mexico.

In between they aim for the San Luis Valley, a wind-swept and isolated expanse of high desert in southern Colorado. Extending 100 miles from a single mountain pass at its northern end to more than 50 miles wide at the south, the shrub-clothed valley funnels migrating cranes.

About 20,000 sandhills, essentially the entire population that uses the Rocky Mountain flyway, descend on this unlikely oasis in spring and again in fall, drawn by the sparkle of water from ephemeral ponds and marshes that sprinkle its arid surface.

The tall birds feed intently during the day, replenishing stores depleted by their long flight, and retreat to the safety of shallow water at night; they call continuously, filling the air with throaty voices.

And they dance.

In the midst of a flock of hundreds of gray-feathered sandhills feeding in the stubble of a valley cornfield just after dawn, two cranes face each other.

Apparently oblivious to the crowd of birds around them, they bow, bending their long legs and inclining their heads. Then one leaps up, wings outstretched to the full 6-foot width, and lands, bowing again. The other leaps, then bows. The two stretch upward in unison and cross beaks, then leap toward the sky, calling.

They are courting. Like swans, geese, ravens and some other birds, cranes mate for life but renew their bonds each year with ritual dances and those seductive voices.

After a few weeks -- or as much as two months in the San Luis Valley -- the cranes fly onward, following ancient migration routes.

Prehistoric artifacts and stories passed down over many generations indicate that sandhill cranes have been coming to the San Luis Valley for as long as people have -- at least 12,000 years. Their continuing presence depends on water, a contested and dwindling resource in today's valley, where agricultural wells deplete the same supply of groundwater that fills marshes and ponds to welcome cranes.

I cannot imagine this landscape without the sound of their voices as they pass high over my house, without the rhythm of pairs dancing, without the sight of hundreds of cranes, wings outstretched, long necks leading and legs trailing, spiraling in aerial gyres.

The San Luis Valley is home for the sandhill cranes of the Rocky Mountain flyway. "Home" not in the sense of their place of birth but of a landscape that bids them to return, year after year, a place where their lives flavor the seasons and weave the fabric of the high desert.

My own clan of humans has not called any particular place home for many generations. We were pulled from Scandinavia and northern Britain to this continent in search of fortune and then impelled by some inner restlessness to move from state to state.

Like sandhill cranes though, my brother and I are called to specific landscapes: he to the Pacific Northwest, where salmon swim long ocean migrations before following the scent of their natal stream home, and I to the edge where the Great Basin's ocean of sagebrush laps the shores of the Rocky Mountains.

Home, I think, is not so much a place of birth as an attachment of heart and spirit to a landscape whose call is so insistent that we are impelled to wing or walk or swim or drive epic journeys to reach its familiar contours, and to return, year after year, until death resets our course.

Home is where we give as much as we get, the way flocks of sandhill cranes fertilize the valley soil where they feed and roost, any place where our voices linger in song and story and the memories of our sojourn stir hearts long after we are gone, regardless of whether we were born there or how long we stay.

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