In his marvelous book The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes, Peter Matthiesen chronicles these magnificent creatures, the largest of all flying birds on earth. While reading it several years ago, I took periodic breaks to enjoy an exquisite print of a pair of red-crowned cranes that my daughter Ariel brought back from Korea, where cranes symbolize happiness, good luck, long life, and marital bliss. I also reminisced a trip to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Texas, to watch the famous whooping cranes in their winter habitat about ten years ago.
Cranes, I mused: magical, magnificent, mysterious, and – to my mind, at least – a tad melancholy. It’s as if they know and see too much, suffering in silence for the misdeeds of others.
Known for their stunning beauty, elaborate dances, unusual calls, and fidelity to their mates, cranes also have amazing flying prowess. Aesop lauds how cranes can “rise above the clouds into endless space, and survey the wonders of the heavens, as well as of the earth beneath, with its seas, lakes, and rivers, as far as the eye can reach.” But living on the wrong side of the world, Aesop didn’t know the half of it! Last year, one group of migrating cranes flew for 97 days and covered 1262 miles. “Whoopers” (whooping cranes)have been known to fly as far as 500 miles in a day, although about 186 miles is the average.
But the highest-flying award goes to the Eurasian cranes, flying over the Himalaya Mountains at altitudes up to 32,800 feet – the same as jetliners. Some pass over the Himalayas, while others fly across the vast Sahara. The lesser sandhill crane wins the distance award, flying from eastern Siberia across the Bering Sea into Alaska and then south to southern California or even northern Mexico.
Cranes have fascinated humankind for millennia, and mythology about cranes can be found in most every culture from the beginning of time. Ancient Egyptian tombs are filled with images of demoiselle cranes, and various other species appear in prehistoric cave drawings in Africa, Australia, and Europe. According to legend, cranes inspired the Greek god Mercury to invent the written alphabet, basing the angular characters on the chevrons of cranes in flight. Since language is the basis of shared knowledge, it wasn’t long before cranes became icons for wisdom.
In Oriental mythology, cranes have occupied a prominent place for millennia. In China, they protect the Emperor’s throne in Beijing’s Forbidden City and are often depicted carrying the souls of the departed to heaven. Crowned cranes are the national birds of Nigeria and Uganda, and blue cranes of South Africa. Coins and stamps of many countries depict cranes.
Crane dances have been recorded in many parts of the world, including the Mediterranean, China, Siberia, and Australia. A “dance of the white cranes” is known from 500 B.C. in China. The Brogla crane was so named by aboriginal Australians after a young woman whose exquisite dancing drew attention from numerous suitors. Among her admirers was an evil magician who, rejected in his offer of marriage, then transformed her into a crane.
But perhaps the best-known and most poignant example of the enduring symbolic significance of cranes emerged from the ashes of World War II. A young Japanese girl who had survived the bombing of Hiroshima – but only barely – resolved to fold a thousand paper cranes in her effort to recover. Although she was unable to complete the task, other children took up the task. Since then, children around the world have annually created paper cranes to symbolize the hope for peace. Worshipping at Sycamore Congregational Church this morning, I was delighted to find their Christmas tree adorned not with the usual lights and ornaments, but with several hundred paper cranes. We add emblems of peace to their many other iconic attributes.
Jumping from prehistory to my lifetime, the near demise of the whooping crane has made them a symbol for environmental preservation. These birds – the largest of all birds in North America – were once familiar sights throughout midwestern parts of the US and Canada. But by 1941, the loss of habitat from human development reduced their numbers to only 21. Through active conservation measures, in 2007 they numbered 240 in the wild and 145 in captivity.
It turns out that cranes are an “umbrella species” in conservation and land use lingo. This is because their survival is dependent on the health of their habitat. As the term implies, a species casts an “umbrella” over the other species by being especially sensitive to habitat changes. Managing land to provide for the needs of the umbrella species results in a high quality habitat for all animals in the area. (For more details, see http://www.eoearth.org/article/Umbrella_species.)
So, in a nutshell: if you see a crane, you can be sure
that all is well with the nearby natural world.
Now this makes me wonder: what about other umbrella species? We know about the northern spotted owls in old-growth forests, the black bear in Florida, and tigers in India. But what about homo sapiens? It seems that, as a whole, we qualify as an anti-umbrella species, for we are the ones primarily responsible for ruining the habitat for umbrella and non-umbrella species, cranes and caterpillars, and most everything else.
But could it be that some small groups of people are indicative of the overall health of the larger human family? Are politicians, lawyers, doctors, teachers an umbrella species, in that the presence of one type indicates overall human well-being? (Maybe yes, maybe no. I dare not diss my friends by singling them out for approval or condemnation…)
And then the words from last Sunday’s gospel message come to mind: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” [Matthew 3: 1-3]
Does not John the Baptist sound like those high-flying cranes with their strident shrieks? Listening to the Biblical messages of John the Baptist and the impending birth of Jesus during these first weeks of Advent, it seems to me that the presence of prophets and protestors is a sure sign of a healthy community. Totalitarian states don’t have either.
In the Hebrew Bible, we find Nathan calling King David to account for his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his shenanigans in arranging for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle. And there was Elijah who scourged Ahab and Jezebel by crying foul as they cavorted with the gods of Ba’al. Jeremiah was so virulent in his verbal attacks against the power elite that he gave birth to the term jeremiad, meaning a bitter lament or righteous prophecy of doom.
And then there was John, prophet extraordinaire. The historical record is clear on the large numbers of people who flocked to hear him as well as his cruel death at the hands of King Herod. He must have had very special powers, for Luke gives him an infancy birth narrative filled with miracles – the visitation of the angel Gabriel, the pregnancy of a childless woman late in life, and the fact that his father was struck dumb upon hearing the angel’s words. John the Baptist sits at the fulcrum between the great prophets of Israel and the new prophet Jesus. Like Advent itself, John represents the in-between time of what is and what is to come. He represents the in-between space between heaven and earth. He challenges the world to clean up its act, to become healthy, while he also offers hope that we may fly as high as our hearts may lift us. Truly, prophets like John – and Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day and so many others – are the scourge of our consciences and the hope of the world.
Just like cranes.
During this Advent season, I encourage you to consider how we can protect all umbrella species – these prophets of doom and gloom – these harbingers of hope. Thank you.