Driving down to the San Luis Valley last week to see the sandhill cranes, the world felt uprooted, out of sorts. Fierce winds—the same ones that have been causing wildfires all week in Colorado— blew dust across the valley, creating sandstorms and blocking out the Sangre de Christo mountains. Tumbleweeds danced across the road, and the dust-filled landscape looked like something from the Dust Bowl days.
It was the opposite of last year, when this southern Colorado valley was covered in snow, and blizzard conditions kept us in the car, peering out at the ghostly outlines of these tall, stately birds. This year, it was the strong winds that made it unpleasant to be outside, so I had to roll down the windows to hear the sound of the cranes, a croaking vibration that spreads throughout the whole flock. To me, it’s the sound of spring, of the arrival of an animal that has survived thousands of years of climatic upheaval, who have lived through wet and dry, warm and cold, volcanoes and ice.
Only to find themselves here, in this high altitude valley that gets only 7 inches of precipitation a year. To distribute the water that comes down from the mountains, a vast network of ditches has been created, while wells bring up water from the aquifer. Vast center pivot irrigation machines spew water on the dry fields in order to grow potatoes and barley, the latter for Coors beer.
In this unnatural alteration of nature, the government pays farmers to leave crops on their fields from the previous year, so the cranes have food for their spring stop in their migration north. And irrigation pumps keep the Monte Vista wildlife refuge filled with ponds, so the cranes have a safe place to roost at night, away from predators.
It’s a strange world we live in, with climate change causing warmer winters that exacerbate our drought conditions, so we take more artificial measures to keep potatoes growing and the cranes feeding, while sandstorms and wildfires become the new normal.
And yet, throughout it all, the cranes seem oblivious, adjust their flight patterns to fly parallel with the strong winds, keep their heads down as they feed, while the wind ruffles their feathers. They continue their acrobatic feats: taking advantage of the wind to leap into the air, their wings outspread, either to challenge their neighbor, impress a possible mate, or just some spring time exuberance. Despite the strong winds and dust, they take to the sky, their powerful wings stroking the air and their sweet chortles filling the sky, while those of us who are earthbound can only crane our heads (pun intended) in admiration and amazement.
A part of me worries, of course. In this time of climate change, how much longer can this web of life sustained by human intervention keep going? There’s no way of knowing, so, for now, I’ll be happy that they are here and keep craning my head to keep them in my view as long as possible.