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A Woman Inside Watching

· The Lede

Sharman Apt Russell

From inside my house, I use binoculars to watch the cranes. A family group—female, male, and adolescent—are digging through the flooded field for insects and grubs. The Greater Sandhill Crane is about four feet high, not as tall as an emu (six feet) or an ostrich (eight feet) but impressive enough to make you pause. Birds are not often this big. Birds don’t reach up to your chest with wings stretching out like a vampire’s cloak and a dagger-sharp bill that could gut a coyote.

Suddenly the adult female in my field gets excited, and the patch of naked red skin on her forehead turns brighter red, engorged with blood. I think I can actually see this through my binoculars. She raises her wings, and the red patch is hidden. She jumps slightly, an awkward hop. I wonder if she is about to dance. To my disappointment, she does not. Instead she folds in her wings and holds still. Cranes can look oddly human, with their long legs, erect stance, and series of well-considered actions: one foot placed carefully in front of the other, a lowering of the neck, a jab at the ground, a raising of the head, a stately movement forward. Ten birds in a field look like so many peasant farmers going slowly about their tasks. Fifty birds remind me of a convention. There is an air of gossip and professional opportunity, a constant and subtle flow, exchanges over territory and status, significant preening, a single wing stretch, a double wing stretch, an alert stare. If alarmed, the entire convention will spread wings and flap away—their gurgles, knocks, and rattles filling the air. Family members, in particular, keep a constant vocal contact, staying together in the confusion of take-off. Any allusion to humanity is now dispelled, for the sound of cranes is distinctly inhuman, weird and prehistoric.

Cranes mate for life or at least for the life of that particular mate. The female I am watching now could have been coming to this field every year for twenty years. Nothing much has changed from her point of view. The Gila River shifted course. Some cottonwoods fell down. And a big box appeared on the land, a woman inside watching.

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John Burroughs Award winner Sharman Apt Russell is the author of eight nonfiction books and four novels. Her most recent book is My Life as a Pantheist.

Cranes In The Sky ::: Solange

Craney Crow ::: Dr John

Crane Wife 3 ::: The Decemberists

Cranes In Their Nest ::: Goro Yamaguchi

The Birds Are A Good Idea ::: David Thomas & The Pedestrians