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Sandhill cranes, flying overhead, say the natural world is coming alive

Sandhill cranes on March 15 fly near Gibbon, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Certain events define us, such as the birth of a child, the death of a parent, love found, or love lost.

And then there are the events that test our courage, such as pressures at home or work, the life or death emergency at five o’clock in the morning, or the loss of a job or a home.

OPINION

Not all events are, however, so dramatic or traumatic. There are those that are quietly moving, like an epiphany, events that create indelible memories triggered, perhaps, by a sound, a place, by the seasons and the sky.

Over the past two autumns, a certain amount of ado has been made in the Chicago media about the sandhill crane migration through the area, as well as across the city itself. As it turns out, I’m a big “crane man,” in both autumn and spring, going back decades to the rusty and sooty 10th Ward along the Illinois-Indiana border.

About an hour and a half past sunrise, on some day in early March, the first wave of cranes would fly over my family’s house in that part of Chicago after leaving Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Refuge near Valparaiso. Starting in the early 1980s, when we first took note of them, my father and I would watch them when we were lucky enough to be home at the same time. Watching the cranes became a “father and son thing,” and after his death, a “mother and son thing,” too.

The spring migration is usually easier to anticipate rather than the haphazard fall migration. In March, large skeins, often over a hundred cranes each, would pass over, either on their own or in loosely spaced, larger formations. Other skeins and formations would follow, usually 15 to 20 minutes apart. And at other times, as in 1995, a month after my father’s death, they came over by the thousands during the course of a sunny, warmer than usual, March morning.

My favorite crane moments are when a large skein, or two smaller ones, would seemingly stop in mid-flight, pivot, and then begin to swirl counterclockwise, in a loud, krooing avian cyclone. After several turns, the skein would reform its v-shape, and the cranes would continue on, north by northwest. Were they taking their bearings or doing a headcount? I prefer to think that they were picking their leader.

To step closer to the present, the spring migration of 2017 was in some ways a gaffe, but also a wonderful gift. On the day in question, I made the journey back to the Southeast Side to meet up with a friend. Our destination? Lake Calumet, in order to view the migration from a place with wide open skies, and for me, a touch of family history, as my father had grown up nearby, in South Deering, during the Great Depression. He and I had fished at Lake Calumet when I was young.

The skies were indeed high and bright, a cold brittle blue, but no cranes appeared. A week later, however, on a somewhat warmer day with rain closing in, several thousand came over the southwest suburbs, with the added treat of two whooping cranes embedded in a very small skein that itself was interwoven between two very large skeins of sandhills. Bold whooping crane white dabbed in between brush strokes of soft sandhill crane gray. A vivid work of living art.

The message sent by the fall crane migration has always been simple: fall’s over, winter’s here. The message one should derive from the spring migration is much different. The world, the natural world, is coming alive, whether blooming or taking wing, and the sun has returned to us until November night falls once again. Live, love, and strive.

Why are cranes so important to me? Cranes belong to another world, another time. They are ancient of days. In addition to being lithe and graceful, they are raw and elemental, kith and kin to the sun and the moon, the stars and the rain.

And they are mnemonic devices — memory triggers — as the sight of them conjures up faces and voices, people and places, from the depths of the mind, and the past lives again.

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.

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