Photo: kojihirano/Shutterstock

The Day I Envied the Cranes

by Kristin Conard Jun 2, 2011
Kristin Conard has a moment of introspection while bird-watching.

I TRAVELED SOLO to Kearney, Nebraska — what many people consider “flyover country” — for my spring break to watch the sandhill crane migration.

I’ve received the impressed comments, often from other women and often from those who don’t travel much themselves, saying things like, “I can’t believe you travel on your own. That’s so brave. I could never do that.” It’s a point of pride in a way for me, to go it alone. I make friends along the way, and through the glories of the Internet, I can keep in touch with those that I’ve left behind.

As I stood in a blind along the Platte River watching the birds, I wasn’t able to talk to those around me, but on the way back to the visitor’s center, I was chatting and exchanging information, my normal traveling self. And while at the center, I learned more about the cranes and their connection to each other.

Cranes mate for life. The mating ritual includes dancing. On occasion, one will bring the other a corn cob or a stick and fling it in the air as though to say, “Look at me! I can make a good nest.” Even after the pair has mated, they will continue to dance with and for each other — even sing with each other — to strengthen pair bonding.

On their way back to the breeding and nesting sites in the north, the pairs, out of necessity, ditch their young. Can’t make and take care of new babies if the old ones are still around. Seeing three or four cranes flying together, it’s a family group. Seeing one crane flying alone, it’s a juvenile out alone in the world.

I wondered how this was done in a practical sense. They use voice recognition; out of the crowds of thousands, they can hear their own babies and the babies can hear their parents. So do the parents leave in the middle of the night, without a sound? Is there a special call that says, All right, junior. You’re on your own now. Good luck, and happy flying?

Cranes aren’t meant to be alone; even the juveniles will form groups — bachelor bands — that fly together once they’ve been abandoned by their parents before they form their mated pairs.

People are the same in many ways. Now, I know that there is a real danger in anthropomorphism. To bestow human qualities onto the natural world is a way to negate the inherent worth and uniqueness of a species.

But on the drive back to my hotel, I stopped near a field, and I sat there in my rental car, my forehead pressed against the window, craning my neck to see the sky and watching for the single crane, the one who has yet to find a group or a mate. The one who is in-between, with thousands of miles to fly.

For that’s where I saw myself at this breath in time. And it was not that I feared I was projecting myself onto a bird that had brought unexpected tears to my eyes; it was the fear that my own thousands of miles would continue to be traversed alone.

I don’t understand this emotion, and I resented its intrusion on my trip. As often as I’ve wished for someone to travel with me and as often as I’ve had people around, I’ve reveled in my alone-ness as I travel. If I want to spend 3 hours in the Monet museum in the Tuilieries Gardens, moving between the two rooms, back and forth, no one will be there to pull on my elbow to say, “let’s go, this is boring.”

There’s no pressure to be out and about. If I want to stay in the hostel lounging around, I can. If I want to hop on the bus to Macedonia, I don’t have to check with anyone else to see if they want to go as well. I couldn’t be here at all if I’d had to organize the trip with anyone else; I’d bought my tickets 3 days before I left.

So what was it about being practically in the middle of nowhere watching cranes, of all the random creatures in the world, that I felt this malaise? Biological clocks? Peer pressure? I didn’t know what it was, and the feeling didn’t wear well. I figured that a long run would help me clear my head, but the prevailing winds carrying a smell of a nearby cattle farm kept me in the exercise room at the hotel.

Where, to my annoyance, a couple was already there. And the woman was actually wearing a t- shirt that read “Just Married.” Delightful. I pushed my pace and pumped up the volume on my iPod and tried to avoid staring at this in-the-flesh contrast to my solitary state.

I stewed in my annoyed alone-ness (that I feared was quickly becoming loneliness) not feeling like the brave, free spirit I’m sometimes seen as, and how I thought I’d feel on this trip. I jogged as I avoided openly watching Mrs. Just Married cycling slowly while Mr. Just Married was doing push-ups. The run did nothing except make me sore, and the soak in the hottub did nothing but make my fingers and toes prune.

I don’t want to be married; I don’t want permanent settled attachment; I like this independent life that I have. On my flight home, after moving between emotions of this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen and I wish I was a crane in a mated pair, and I’m envying birds, what’s wrong with me?, I stared morosely out the window when a thought from beneath the wishful sadness said, The birds have to fly alone. But they won’t always.

Between moving from family to mate, I am supposed to — I need to — fly alone.

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