To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Henry David Thoreau
It was the cattails, single cattails, perfectly-formed and poking through the ice in the snow-melting marsh, that stopped me in my tracks, invited me to pause after two-hours of the most delicious of skate-skis this past Sunday afternoon. I hadn’t expected the conditions in mid-April to be so good. And yet, here I was, like a kid in the toy section of Macy’s Department Store, sliding and gliding and skating along on a bounty of settled snow in the wilds of the Noquemenon Trail off of County Road 510. Here I was in my shirt-sleeves, breathing in the moist smell of pine and snow and the vastness of an afternoon/early evening ski alone in the wilderness. Here I was listening to my own heart as it beat a steady thank you thank you thank you, listening to the silence, too, that filled this winter-melting-into-spring air. Here I was happy in the moment as I paused at the marsh. And that’s when I heard it.
I think I heard it first, before I caught a glimpse of it. And the sound startled me. It wasn’t a whoop or a howl or a honk — it wasn’t quite a croak either. It was more of a croaking honking scream, something otherworldly and ancient, and it seemed to rise from the pines and the birches that lined this small marsh. And then I saw it — its broad wings flapping as it lifted off, its neck long and stretched out straight. It flew over the marsh and headed in my direction. And I had no doubt as I looked up at it. This majestic bird that was flying above me, it was a sandhill crane. And, as if a sandhill crane isn’t gift enough in mid-April after one of the best-feeling skis of the season, there’s more to the story, so let me back up and explain.
It was in Maine a week earlier while driving across a bridge over the New Meadows River that my friend Muriel and I had spotted it flying high above the road. “What was that?” Muriel had called out. We squinted, the setting sun in our eyes, trying to make sense of this bird that was now heading over the ridge of trees and out of our sight. It was its shape that had befuddled us. Its neck, stretched out straight, seemed to go on and on forever. It definitely hadn’t been an eagle or an osprey, two birds that might have been nesting somewhere along the New Meadows. And geese and herons don’t extend their necks like that. “I’ll make a sketch of it, then look it up later,” Muriel had said. “I’ll call Cam,” I had added.
My husband Cam is a bird geek. I’m sort of a bird geek, too, am one by osmosis, know the names of many birds because I grew up under my mother’s wing and she was definitely a bird geek. But Cam, he’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to identifying birds. I think he always has been. We were still teenagers when we met forty years ago, in the lunch line at York Hall at University of Maine. He was wearing a red chamois L.L. Bean shirt and Levi jeans and around his neck hung this wooden whistle-thing that I had never seen before. And so, that was our beginning, right there standing among his friends and my friends while waiting for our meal tickets to be stamped, our very first conversation — a demonstration by Cam of a mallard duck call. And sure enough, forty years later, he had the answer for Muriel and I when I called him later that evening, a definitive no-doubt-in-his-voice-two-word-answer: “Sandhill crane.” We had seen a sandhill crane, the first one that I had seen in Maine and one of the only ones I have ever seen.
So, the next Friday evening, two days before my mid-April ski into the wilds of Marquette County, with my trip to New England still fresh in my mind, I found myself once again immersed in the pleasure of bird-thought. I was already slowed-down as I sat in the audience at Joy Center, primed for the moment when my mind drifted to a love for birds and for the lovers who love birds. The poets, Tim and Regina Gort, brilliant and bright and generous in their personhood, adorable as a couple, were drawing us in, seducing us with their lush use of language, their rich imagery, their play back and forth in wholehearted poems that they had written together. And then there was the bird poem, from these self-professed bird geeks,”I loon for you.” Oh my goodness, I was present with Tim and Regina as they tantalized each other with their bird talk, “I warble for you in yellow and blacks” and I was back there too, with my guy in his red chamois shirt and his wooden duck call. I was filled with the songs of birds and an uplifted heart and love spilling over when I found my way back home again after the Gort’s reading and I didn’t want to break the spell. And that’s when I found this gem of a movie that kept me flying high: A Birder’s Guide to Everything, the sweetest of coming of age stories that matched my mood perfectly.
And on Saturday, the momentum kept building. I spoke of sandhill cranes. And I don’t think I’ve ever spoken of sandhill cranes before. I was at Joy Center again, this time with Amber and Raja, another adorable couple who are also poets and self-professed bird geeks. I told them of the crane flying high in the sky over the New Meadows River in Maine and how quick Cam was to identify it, and they told me that they see them often in fields by their house, described to me their gray coloring with the patches of rust, and the sound they make, ancient and otherworldly. So that’s what I brought with me to County Road 510 the next day, that’s what was present as I snapped my boots into my skate-ski bindings, that’s what was wafting through the air as I pushed off in corn-snow glides — it was all of it, the movie that I loved with every fiber of my being and the poems that lifted my wings, and the appreciation for my birder-geek of a guy and the memory of our beginnings, and the smell of the coast in Maine and gratitude for friendships, and an image of this particular bird. And when you bring all of this into your moment, how can it be otherwise? Of course it will appear.
As I stood there beside the marsh, looking up, I saw the gray and the rust patches that Amber and Raja had described. And I heard that ancient otherworldly sound. And this bird, this bird that I am sure that I drew to me, this bird with its broad wings flapping, didn’t disappear over the horizon and into the trees, not yet. It circled around me, as if in slow motion, as if to say, “Remember me. Don’t forget. Don’t forget this feeling that you’re feeling right now.”