That is the first line of a short poem by William Wordsworth, the English romantic poet. What follows is “when I behold/A rainbow in the sky.” Two magical happenings in my life recently have called Wordsworth to mind. A close friend and I have gone first to Crex Meadows in WI and then to the Sherburne Wildlife Refuge in MN to watch as thousands of sand hill cranes have returned to their temporary home after a day of eating corn and other grasses (the WI trip) and waked up, talked over breakfast, and eventually taken off for the day eating corn and other grasses (the MN trip). These events have let me know just what William experienced when he looked up to see color arcing across his sky. Another poem of his has also been rustling around in my brain as I recall all those graceful birds coming and going. On April 15, 1802, William and his devoted sister, Dorothy, were on a walking tour in their beloved Lake District. Again, all of a sudden Nature surprises him and he writes “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” The line from that poem that I keep playing is “All at once I saw a crowd,/A host of golden daffodils.”
My friend and I surely watched a huge bunch of sand hill cranes, but I felt pretty sure “host” was not the correct venereal word for such a large number of them. So I consulted my trusty book that tells me the proper venereal term for all manner of beings–An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton. There I learned that many cranes may be termed a “construction,” a “dance,” a “sedge,” a “siege,” or a “swoop.” (My playful self decided I’d hold “swoop” in reserve until I might witness the fly pattern of whooping cranes–a swoop of whoops.) What I saw in those skies feels like a dance since as one flock after the other came within binocular range, they seemed to make patterns of movement like aerial dancers given complete free reign over body movements and group formations.
At Crex Meadows, I stood looking up to watch some flocks flying away from the sunset. These looked like horizontal black lines because their long, thin necks and even longer, thinner legs, both of which extremities were extended but compressed in order to promote swiftness, I suspect. If I twisted about 90 degrees, the cranes overhead were flying directly into the setting sun. As the fading rays touched their underbellies, I gasped in amazement. Suddenly creatures I’d thought were dark or mottled gray with the signature little red dot atop their heads and the rather pronounced black bills glowed like magic lights. It seems sand hill cranes have golden chests and undersides of the gray wings. Because I felt immediate contact with something profoundly spiritual, I tended to keep looking at the thousands of birds that flew at that angle, marveling at their iridescent splendor. I also felt humbled before such imminent beauty that was being offered to me with no restraints. My mind flashed to Loren Eisley’s beautiful writings about the powerful mysteries he found in nature. He often reflected, as has Annie Dillard, on just how extravagant Nature so often is, forming trees that drop tens of thousands of seedlings that will never become even a tiny stick in someone’s yard. Both of these writers keep telling us to pay attention to this plenitude, and try not to be stingy in our own giving patterns. That’s how I felt standing with a small assortment of other people equally entranced by all the cranes flying over us in wave after wave. Nature was being hugely generous in sharing the cranes’ homing instincts with the motley group standing in the road, eyes upward, senses on alert.
Watching the slow lightening of the skies over the huge pond at Sherburne Wildlife Refuge, I felt a similar wonder and humility. The mood of the cranes was quite different from that of the returning birds in Wisconsin. As light slowly manifested, more and more cranes waked and began making quiet but persistent sounds. Our excellent guide, Cody, told me they were “talking to each other,” ta concept that charmed me. I know how sweet such first words of a morning can be for us humans, so I listened with interest, imagining how pleasing it was being for each waking crane to connect with her or his fellows before gathering enough energy to take flight and go find the corn fields. It was cold in the early light and some folks went back to their cars to warm up, but I just stayed, not wanting to lose a moment of this magical experience. It wasn’t until I was back in my car that I began to shiver, realizing that I was thoroughly chilled. Audre Lorde has a trenchant essay titled “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In it she defines what eroticism used to mean before too many men tarnished the notion. Lorde says the erotic is any activity in which we engage where we lose ourselves. She went on in her wry way to posit that, if we’re lucky, a few times in our lives that will happen while we are being sexual with someone. But she asked readers to look closely inside ourselves and discover what it was in our lives that had this capacity to lift us out of our usual routines. My immediate response the first time I read her essay was to say “it’s gardening,” because in my yard I lose track of time, forget terrible events in the world, and feel intimate connections with some life force far greater than myself. As I kept training my binoculars on the next group of cranes, I realized I was having what Lorde would describe as an erotic experience.
So now my friend and I have completed a circle in relation to the “host” of cranes on the brink of migrating southward. I feel profound gratitude to be open to mystery–on the wing, in the sky. All I have to do is close my eyes, think “sandhill cranes,” and the experience washes back over me and my heart leaps up all over again.