One starless night in early spring my friend Emma and I drove off into the darkness to count migrating Sandhill Cranes
We were taking part in an annual event sponsored by the National Audubon Society. The outing involved groups of enthusiastic bird watchers setting out for various marshes and wildlife sanctuaries throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. The object was to listen for calls that signaled the return of these splendid birds. Then, after several chilly hours of waiting and watching, volunteers would gather, tally up their numbers, and hope that the Sandhill was safe for another year.
This grand adventure required hitting the road by 3:00 A.M, as official bird counting began before daybreak. Upon arriving at our site, a guide would instruct us to sit quietly, tuned into blackness until 7:30 A.M, or whenever the frozen ground forced us to take cover. Five of us drove together that morning. Over the country roads we bumped, drinking coffee out of paper cups while quibbling over directions to an unmarked swamp near Fairchild, Wisconsin.
Once we arrived we hiked another mile down a fire lane, carrying an array of paper, pencils, blankets, and boat cushions. Armed with only a small flashlight, we groped through brush and over fallen logs before arriving at our appointed stations.
There we sat, Emma and I
Huddled under a mildewed blanket, we chortled about everything unrelated to birds and counting. The rest of the group cast chastening glances our way, clearly irritated by our irreverence for the occasion.
We obediently shifted our focus from prattling to a bag of donuts. Then something happened that suggested we were in for something bigger than bird counting. Somewhere between our mindless chatter and the donut bag, silence gave way to sound. It came from the swamp, the underbrush, and the naked oaks above us.
Night sounds. Wind stirring. Mysterious thuds and rustling leaves. Then, an eerie overture of Sandhill guard calls, followed by a movement of unison cries from the illusive birds. One mate called to another. Their ungainly symphony rang through the trees like promising creation lyrics sung upon a starless stage.
The score then shifted to melodious sounds accompanied by something resembling a pitch pipe.
As the softening glow of dawn reach skyward, we saw a nighthawk take flight. Seconds later, a murder of crows descended upon the unsuspecting hawk. We could only stare into the fog and wonder what the outcome might have been. Wrapped in strains of emerging daybreak, we waited. Promising sounds of creation rang over the thawing earth that careless use of herbicides and human technology had failed to touch.
In the East, an amber band of dawn spilled across the sky. Its light glinted off prisms of ice that clung to the marsh grasses. Without a sound, the sun suddenly rose like a fiery ember.
In the rolling hills and woods of Western Wisconsin where I grew up, this morning landscape still waits for us to listen and watch. Growing older I’ve come to understand it’s more than a sketch of dawn or a pleasant outing with an old friend. It’s a way of seeing, an experience of insight. Our vision is shaped by our surroundings. Even as a child, I awakened early and now see that the earth and sky of my childhood remain with me. We each carry these kind of recollections, as memories and metaphors. They shape our language and understanding of our life journeys.
Today, I see a spiritual experience as a moment when God speaks and we humans hear and are moved toward freedom. Sometimes this experience is as simple as the cry of a Sandhill Crane returning to the Wisconsin marshlands.