Hope Arrives on the Wind

Doreen - Kearney, Nebraska
Entered on February 28, 2006

Age Group: 30 - 50
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

Springtime sunsets on the Platte River splash orange and purple across the sky. Wave after wave rolls in, not on the water, but above: sandhill cranes by the hundreds, by the thousands, are coming in to roost for the night in the Platte’s shallow braided channels. All around, long-necked birds cup their wings in six-foot arcs and, legs dangling, drop like paratroopers, while the air rings for miles with bugled tremolos. One wave follows another into the distance, where cranes become countless black flecks, peppering the sky until they vanish in the blaze of the setting sun.

That’s the view most evenings in March from the big observation blind at Audubon’s Lillian Rowe Sanctuary in south-central Nebraska. I am one of two dozen volunteers whose privilege it is to accompany visitors to the river-bank blinds at dusk and dawn daily. Mornings are dramatic, too: first light spills over a broad river teeming with ghostly-grey creatures, until an eagle glides downstream, launching masses of spooked cranes skyward. Peering through cut-outs in our plywood shelter, we duck needlessly beneath the thunder of beating wings and trumpeted alarm.

Sandhill cranes bring out the missionary in me. At the beginning of a “blind tour,” I tell visitors about this brief stretch of river with its unique combination of shallow water and food fit for a crane. Four-fifths of the world’s sandhills rest and fatten up here at the start of the month-long migration to their arctic breeding grounds. I explain that this precious habitat is threatened by some of the choices humans make in water- and land-use. Then comes the fun part: walking to the blind and waiting in the half-light to watch the wonder on 20-some faces.

“It looks so primeval,” a woman from New Jersey whispered one morning. Some life-long Nebraskans, accustomed to the driving past flocks in cornfields, experience fresh amazement the first time they’re just yards away from so many birds. And almost daily, visitors from across the country echo my own thoughts: “This must be how the passenger pigeons looked.”

Seeing the cranes’ effect on hundreds of people makes me believe this: the magnificent, heart-ravishing spectacles of nature — migrating cranes, icebergs, thunderstorms in the Dakota badlands — can awaken in us a yearning for the wild, the un-trampled, the sublime something that overwhelms our senses. Ten thousand cranes can move the heart more violently than a hundred headlines about climate change and acid rain. In the ghosts of the passenger pigeons, we glimpse what is forever lost to us, and some of us vow that we should lose no more.

We emerge from the blind as from the belly of the whale, thoughtful, humbled. If there is any hope for preserving our planet’s treasures, it resides in souls such as these, that have been transported by awe. Do I believe sandhill cranes can save the world? That would be an exaggeration, but not a big one.