The Flight of the Sand Hill Crane

The Kiote Volume III

The Flight of the Sand Hill Crane


A woman stood at the door of a tiny sod house, shading her eyes with one hard rough hand.  She was watching the figure of a sand hill crane winging its slow majestic flight over the river, across the plains, and beyond the low hills, - piercing the Indian summer mist, on, on – toward the glory of the rising sun.


“Home,” she said wistfully as she strained her eyes to look beyond the vague distance, “Home – it is going home.”  Then she went abruptly into the house and began to sing as she worked.


But the sand hill crane on its autumn flight had witnessed many tragedies like hers.  Its journeying covered historic ground.  Those first rays of the Indian summer sun filtering slowly through the haze, touched with glory the reaches of brown buffalo grass and the sandy valley of the great river of the plains – the river that so generously had given its beautiful Indian name to the great state through which it flows.


But this first gleam of sunlight lingered most caressingly on the line of gold that followed the irregular course of the river across the prairie’s desolation – the gold of the Sunflower Trail.  It was the old Mormon trail across the plains.  But in the autumn and even in the last days of summer, when the prairies grew sad and brown, the sunflowers nodding across that historic highway helped to lure the never-ending line of pilgrims on toward the setting sun, and yet how many of those homeless people watched with a strange sinking of the heart that early autumn flight of the sand hill crane toward the homes that were theirs no more!


For in all the world no desolation can be so complete, no loneliness so intense as that which the wayfarers found on the plains in the days when the buffalo had as yet, scarcely forsaken them.  In the winter the desolation is broken by the fierce wailing of the prairie winds; in the spring hope destroys it; in the summer the glory of the prairie skies, the splendor of light and fathomless beauty, make one forget everything but the joy of life.  Desolation comes only in the autumn when the birds go home and the leaves of the cottonwood grow yellow and sere, when the sun is scarcely visible above the brooding mists, and sky and earth and dreaming together.  It is then when you can hear the heart of the great plains throbbing in the deathless silence that the prairies seem to stretch away forever, on, on and into infinitude and you remain alone, all alone in a wilderness of desolation.  The world seems to be forever receding leaving you a helpless victim of despair.


Then, by day, the sand hills grim and barren look down with strange foreboding; and by night, while the horizon is still only a purple glow above the world, the stars, searching through the haze of the vanished sunset, seem to gaze with infinite pity upon the dreary waste below.  It is then that the evening song of the coyote, echoing and re-echoing over the deserted plains, seems the haunting voice of despair.  Yes, the sand hill crane leaves the plains early in autumn for it is then that the Spirit of Loneliness claims them for her own.


Yet it journeys slowly – very slowly – as if loth to leave this tragedy of earth and sky, and when it finds the grass still green in the prairie sloughs it wonders for a moment if it is not going too soon.


But no – there is the thick brush of wild plum trees dark along the channel line; and the bitter-sweet berries in all their scarlet beauty are clinging to the gray gnarled limbs of the cotton-wood that grows by the narrow channel ford.


Yes, the dark channel line across the faded yellow of the misty waste is a warning that time is precious now.  For the prairie winds will soon be blowing now, - the winds that roll great clouds of dust down the trail, - the winds that fill the air with a yellow haze and draw a veil between the earth and sky.  It is these winds which blow from interminable distances across the level prairies that the sand hill crane dares not face.  It must take its flight early or may never go at all.


For the sand storms are scarcely gone before the snow comes.  Then great clouds of whirling whiteness rush from the east, from the west, from the south, and the north wind seizes them all in his rude embrace and tosses them toward heaven like a fountain’s spray.  Then there is no prairie and no sky – nothing but blinding snow-mists – and wind.  There is no voice so weird, so awful as the wild, wailing voice of these prairie winds in winter.  It is then that the savage children of the plains come back to haunt the homes they loved.  It is then that one can hear the wild rush and trample of the buffaloes that have been these long years banished, and the ghostly voices of the pilgrims of the Trail. But the sand hill crane in fleeing from the torture of those dreary winter winds loses too the splendor of the gentle days that follow – days when the prairie is a sea of dazzling whiteness, when the sun looks down from its clear cold height and finds that there is no trail and no river and the hills are only drifts of silver and diamond.  It is on days like this that the pale colorless sky comes down everywhere like an inverted bowl and there is nothing to break the thin white line of the horizon.


The sand hill crane is a bird of passage.  While the prairies are dreaming in their robes of whiteness it waits anxiously for the days to come when it shall go back to the hills and the river and the plains.  It begins its homeward journey early in the spring.  It returns to see the great prairie world coming slowly back to life.  It sees the prairie sloughs grow to swamps and the shallow river become a raging torrent, and the plains shaking the frozen stupor from their veins.  Here and there a lone farmer following his plough or a woman standing by a cabin door sees with a great throb of joy that slow flight of the sand hill crane coming back to tell them that the day’s work has begun anew for all the world; that the lonely watches of the winter night from the gray twilight to the frozen dawn art to be forgotten with all the misery of the days that are gone.


Yes, there is great joy on the prairies when the sand hill crane brings back the spring, and it journeys slowly to the old haunts which it knows and loves.  The violets are hiding again by the channel ford; the wild roses are breathing their faint, sweet fragrance along the wayside; the meadow larks are at home again on the island where the willows grow.  The never-ending line of prairie schooners is moving slowly to the west again and the prairie about them is all green and the cloudless sky above is a fathomless sapphire blue.


The sand hill crane sees many tragedies when it leaves the prairie in the fall; but it finds hope when it returns, and that is as it should be for there is no sorrow in life that in the end is not redeemed in joy.


Edith Abbott, The Kiote, Dec. 1900

The Kiote Excerpts
The Flight of the Sand Hill Crane