Embers from the Fire
A weekly blog by Deacon Dan Wagnitz for the Quad Parish Community
Sometimes We Are Wrong – 8/28/2020
“The sadness discernible in some marshes arises perhaps in their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.” (Aldo Leopold, “Marshland Elegy”) That quote is from one of my heroes. Aldo Leopold is known as the father of modern conservation. He was insightful, wise and many of his concepts still drive conservation science today.
The quote was cited by Owen Gromme, another hero of mine. Gromme became world famous for his ability to paint the natural world like few have been able to do. Gromme paid tribute to Leopold’s lament with a painting of sandhill cranes. His painting helped raise money for the Sand County Foundation.
It was Leopold who said, “Some people can live without wild things, and some cannot.” Leopold could not. Gromme could not. I cannot.
Leopold thought we were headed to a world without cranes. Gromme feared the same thing. In another painting he captured a single sandhill crane that he saw in the marsh near Fond du Lac. He painted it because he was afraid that it would be the last crane that he would see. It is easy to have a defeatist attitude when you look at human history. We have made a mess of most everything, especially much of this world we live in. Pope Francis makes this same point in his encyclical, Laudato Si. It is a warning we should heed, and at times we actually have.
The International Crane Foundation began an annual count of cranes in the upper Midwest in order to draw attention to shrinking numbers of cranes. They had in mind to make sure that the marsh did not grow silent. Through education efforts, better farming practices, and protection of the marshes that still remained, the sandhill crane population has risen dramatically in the past twenty years.
I can remember the first cranes I ever saw and it wasn’t that long ago. It was around 1985 and I was hunting pheasants near my father-in-law’s farm north of Suring. Six cranes came trumpeting in and they landed about two hundred yards away. Thanks to Gromme’s paintings I knew what they were right away. After about twenty minutes they lifted off and headed further south.
Nowadays sandhill cranes seem to be in nearly every farm field in Northeast Wisconsin. They come in early in the springtime – when there are still patches of ice in the wetlands. Their trumpet calls shake the last of Old Man Winter’s bones. The nature conservancy behind my house is a filled with cranes that fill the air with calls that you can’t really describe as singing – it’s more like a large all-brass band blaring away.
In the summertime, like the deer, they turn roan red and pair off to raise one or two youngsters. Now, in the last of summer they have begun to gather together again. As dawn melts the darkness, but before the sun lights the eastern horizon on fire, the sandhill cranes tune up the marsh. One starts, and it is like lighting a spark that immediately explodes into a wildfire, and the morning literally echoes cranes. And then they fly out to the local farm fields in small flocks. Dozens will grow to hundreds over the coming weeks. And the gathering of the flocks will be repeated across the Midwest. When they finally fly out for the southlands rest assured that the marsh will only be silent until next April when the cranes will surely return – loud and raucous and alive!
Humanity is not a hopeless cause. God never thought so. Every once in a while, even the wisest when they fear the dark more than they embrace the light, are proven wrong. Sometimes we can still get it right. Leopold and Gromme look down and I know they are happy to be wrong this time. The marshes still resound with the trumpets of cranes. And that is a good thing. Some can live without wild things and some cannot. My heart stirs with the cranes each morning. I cannot live without wild things. And thanks to the many who worked so hard for today’s surprising reality – sometimes we are wrong.