Winter Spirits

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"Wildness incarnate," Aldo Leopold called the sandhill crane.  Standing at the marsh edge in freezing January wind, I close my eyes and feel cascades of plaintive hoots set my brain afire. A group of sandhills, headed for their evening's refuge, emits this eerie anthem. Primitive and strange, it evokes an era and creatures long since vanished. The cranes, in truth, are little changed through millions of years.

Sandhills are large birds, with wingspans up to seven feet. On land, they are gawky, even hesitant. This is most affecting as they tap their toes against thin ice in low morning light, gauging whether it's thick enough to support a take-off run. Once satisfied, they lean forward ever farther till it seems they must pitch over headfirst. A few more tentative steps, a few more degrees of tilt, they inch across the ice. Just when you think capsizing is inevitable, the wings bow upward, legs and wings begin to churn, and suddenly there is liftoff. Watching it recalls the moment when an airplane's wheels lose contact with the tarmac, which always catches me like perfect magic. One moment you are rooted, solid, and the next-without ability to name it-you are loose, weightless, flat earth slipping out the corner of your eye. 
One morning there is mist. The cranes huddle in the cold, resting on one leg with the other folded up tight. The birds are still on the ice long past sunrise, and give no sign of taking off anytime soon-or none I can interpret. Watching these old spirits, I wonder at how little we understand of the rare wild things and places left to us. Finally, a few cranes forsake the ice and fly overhead. I look up and listen as wildness, made flesh in these great birds, sends a haunting call into the sky and trails its dark legs high above.

With a Perspective, I'm Peggy Hansen.