On a glorious autumn day, we went searching for Aldo Leopold, which initially alarmed the person who introduced him to our family.
“Wait,” Molly texted, when I alerted her to our plans.”Are you looking for his grave?”
It was a gross but seasonally reasonable question, with Halloween just days away and poor Mr. Leopold gone since 1947.
Actually, we were searching for the pioneering professor’s spirit, which we found all over the Navarino Nature Preserve, and his beloved Sandhill Cranes, which, that day, we did not.
Leopold, an author and environmentalist, once wrote, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
I can’t say we felt like we belonged to the land as we hiked through sunlit paths, but we did feel like honored guests. Freed of my heavy camera bag, which I pawned off about a half-mile into our little excursion, I practically pranced.
I wanted to see the flocks of Sandhill Cranes that roost near in Pike’s Peak Flowage. Shortly after arriving though, I chatted with a man at the nature center, who told me the cranes leave for the day to feed in the area soybean fields and don’t return until twilight.
I believed him, but I counted on at least a few lazy cranes lounging around the marsh, and I kept my camera poised to shoot them.
Alas, cranes are an industrious bunch and, though we hiked all the way to the marsh and back, we did not spot a single one lounging in the preserve. Of course, as Leopold wrote,“Wilderness is the one kind of playground which mankind cannot build to order.”
Still, we had a wonderful time at Navarino that day, walking on the glacier’s gift of soft sand paths, breathing in clean air, and listening to the crane-less call of the wild.
Then, yesterday, we headed back to Navarino and arrived at dusk, just in time for a spectacular show. First we heard the horn section warming up — a honk here, a honk there and then the cool cacophony of a thousand elegant cranes returning to a marsh they’ve claimed as their summer home for longer than anyone can remember.
I snapped pictures for a while, and then I sat on an Aldo Leopold bench and watched the cranes roll in from every direction. It sounded exactly as Professor Leopold described in “A Sand County Almanac” (Molly’s Christmas gift to her dad).
“High horns, low horns, silence and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shakes the bog with nearness…”
If you’re lucky enough to live near a crane commune, I highly suggest a dawn or dusk visit. It’s pretty life-affirming to know they leave their nests every morning, and to watch them all fly home.
Here’s a taste of what it sounds like when a thousand cranes come home.