Still crazy after all these years

Column by George Sibley

Nature – December 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

I WROTE MOST OF THIS before the election, at a time when it was hard to believe that there was still a race too close to call, after the McCain and Palin duo started running on a lot of nasty untruths, with their only remotely philosophical stance being the fundamentally undemocratic and un-American premise that “spreading the wealth” is a bad thing. How could anyone still take them seriously after that?

But more than two out of five people intelligent enough to vote did, and it will behoove the President-elect and all my euphoric friends to remember that fact. If the economically, educationally and morally undernourished half of that two-fifths cannot be reached somehow — and be helped without being catered to — then that dark cultural underbelly of American denial, rage, racial xenophobia and self- contradicting religiosity will remain a strong political undertow dragging at any real effort to address the staggering problems we face today. And at some future point of vulnerability or exhaustion in our efforts to figure out if intelligent life on earth is possible, they will come storming back and we will descend into another quarter-century spasm of unchallenged selfishness, greed, hate and pseudoreligious palpitation, led by some genial meme fronting for the economic pillagers capitalizing again on their ground troops’ hate and fear.

But instead of descending into the usual depression precipitated by such a gout of thought, I found myself thinking about cranes, and the potentially redemptive value of higher forms of craziness.

That probably wants a little explanation.

One of the constant joys of living in Central Colorado is the annual spring passover of the cranes. I always hear them before I see them — an unmistakable distant but distinct warbling gabble from above that brings me outside, to look up until my eyes adjust to the distance from near term to infinity and I see them: shifting Vs and Ws of Sandhill Cranes, heading north from their Monte Vista convocation, but in a relaxed and sometimes circuitous routing that suggests it might be the going, not the getting there, that is why they do it.

Some of us from the Upper Gunnison make pilgrimages over to the Wildlife Refuge south of Monte Vista when the cranes are flying — a rite of spring. They go over again in the fall, I guess, but that one doesn’t seem so noisy or celebratory, maybe because they’ve got the kids along.

It was our enjoyment, from a distance, of those strange and wonderful birds that led us to The International Crane Foundation out in the woods and marshes of central Wisconsin, north of Baraboo along the Wisconsin River. There we got up close, if not personal, with crane species from all over the world, some as tall as I am, all leg and neck separated by a modest lump of body, which is mostly intricately folded-up wings. Topped by a little head with a ridiculously outsized beak, the crane looks kind of ludicrous down on the ground — evolution gone crazy: How long can a neck and beak get in order to keep up with the lengthening legs, so that this exercise in verticality can still reach down into the water and mud to feed itself?

But when the crane unfolds and spreads those great wings, when it does its awkward little runway run and launches its improbability into the air and goes horizontal, it begins to become meaningful. When it gets to cruising altitude and covers continents with that great slow steady wingbeat, head and neck straight out splitting the wind, feet streamed out behind, it is the very spirit of long-distance flying.

But the most interesting thing we saw at The International Crane Foundation was at the Amoco Whooping Crane exhibit. “Amoco Whooping Crane” is not a subspecies but a sold naming right; it’s Amoco making amends for all the bird habitat our appetites have trashed around the world. Our Colorado cranes are Sandhill Cranes, a thriving species for big birds on earth in the late 20th century, but the Whooping Crane — a striking white bird with a little red and black head — has not fared so well. Feather hunters and habitat loss had reduced its population to a few dozen known Whoopers by mid-20th century, and it became a cause celebré in the ’60s when we began to wake up to our role in species extinction. This has led to one of the most fantastic experiments in restoration imaginable — “fantastic” in this case being used descriptively, not hyperbolically.

The pair of clipped-wing Whooping Cranes in the Amoco exhibit might actually be engendering a subspecies, a breeding pair whose job, in addition to stalking around looking beautiful for visitors, is laying eggs that are being hatched and raised by humans to produce new whooping cranes that have a childhood transcending the most Dickensian imagination.

APROBLEM WITH RAISING CRANES in captivity for release into America is that they don’t know how to migrate. A need to migrate is apparently in their genes, but the destination is “cultural” — learned from the experience of accompanying the parental flock on its migration. And if there is no flock — just some clipped-wing breeders raised from eggs heisted from nests in the Whoopers’ last remaining brood area, up in the North Woods of Canada — then there is no one to pass along that experience. (Heisting the eggs, by the way, is not so bad as it might sound; cranes typically lay two eggs, but only one fledging typically survives, due to a Social Darwinist parenting strategy, so one egg can be taken from each nest.)

Enter “Operation Migration,” an experiment hatched out of, but independent of, the ICF. “Operation Migration” raises some of the Whooper fledglings by bonding them to an ultralight aircraft.

An ultralight aircraft? As Dave Barry says, I’m not making this up. Yes, from the time they can struggle up onto those ungainly legs, the fledglings are fed and cared for by humans garbed in white whirring around the grounds in ultralights, with crane-head puppets on their arms dropping mealworms. The cranes grow up thinking these noisy little machines are their parents.

And when it is time to migrate, to finally go on that transcontinental trip to some winter place? The ultralight takes off, a flight of faith, and the young cranes follow it into the air too, flying off with this guy dressed like a Ku Kluxer in a silly little flying machine out of a Mary Poppins fantasy.

I challenge anyone to watch this, or a video of this, without experiencing a need to surreptitiously wipe at your eyes. It is beautiful. It is also crazy. Absolutely crazy beautiful.

I was almost embarrassed upon leaving The International Crane Foundation, to find questions wiggling their way into my mind. If we can devote this kind of altruistic and creative intelligence and money on a pea-brained bird, why are we so helpless, so unimaginative in the face of human poverty? Why can’t we apply that kind of creative intelligence to health care? Infrastructure? Or overcoming war?

I have no answer for those questions — except to suggest a hypothesis: that we are, and maybe always have been, a sort of a crazed species ourselves — crazy as cranes. Perhaps we are just a scrawny bunch of tree-hugging neomonkeys abandoned by our forest in a time of drought, with nothing going for us but opposable digits and a big mammalian brain full of hot and cold running feelings and imaginings both useful and paranoid. And we didn’t just survive, we thrived. We spread out, all over a world that wasn’t covered by ice, and then swarmed when the ice melted, and we’re still trying to invent and imagine our way out of the consequences of that swarming. Our strategies run the gamut from a quixotic crazy desire to save everyone and everything and let us all live forever, to the mad urge to kill everyone and everything not like us.

Paul Simon said it, sang it: Still crazy after all these years. Three or four million years: our natural history has exploited and concentrated our innate craziness without relieving it or its bipolar orientations.

BUT I DIGRESS. As for “Operation Migration,” is it working? The short answer is yes, but we won’t know the long answer for a long time. A tiny flock of cranes who followed a funny little airplane all the way to a winter ground in Florida (30-mile days, with cooperating farmers lined up all the way) made it back to a Wisconsin breeding area for the summer, and presumably that flock will grow — with the cranes taking care of one egg and humans taking care of the other one — until the mature cranes eventually take over for the airplane.

Our reluctance to invest this kind of beautiful, imaginative, crazy generosity in our own species, while allowing the dark paranoia of our rabid elements to smog away unattended like an undermining peat fire, may undo us at some point. But I hope that when the dust settles, the cranes will still be flying. Still crazy after all these years.

George Sibley remains based in Gunnison after all these years.