The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
by Peter Matthiessen, with paintings and drawings by Robert Bateman
North Point, 349 pp., $27.50
The trouble with cranes is that they are birds out of time, and rapidly running out of space. The family of cranes first evolved over 50 million years ago and ever since their majestic forms have stalked the vast grassy wetlands that have been so central to the continuance of life on earth. These productive regions have waxed and waned as the globe’s climate has cooled and warmed, but there has always been sufficient for the cranes’ survival—until now.
In our increasingly densely populated and polluted planet most of the fifteen crane species cling to an ever more precarious existence; indeed the extinction of several species seems inevitable. Yet anyone reading Peter Matthiessen’s latest book, The Birds of Heaven, will know that this cannot be allowed to occur, for cranes, the book makes clear, are among humanity’s best hopes for our own survival. This is not only because conserving them entails the preservation of vital ecosystem functions, but because the cause of preserving them brings together people from vastly different cultures. The special ability of cranes to do this derives from the high esteem in which they are held in many societies. It is almost as if a love of cranes is a basic human instinct that, for once, drives us to do good for our world.
A wild river called the Amur on the Chinese–Russian border is global headquarters to the family Gruidae—the cranes. Nearly half of the fifteen species can be seen along the Amur, including the red-crowned crane, which at thirty-three pounds in weight and five feet in height is the largest flying bird on earth. Since the Amur flows through the heart of Asia and divides the vastness of Russia from the sea of humanity that is China, the region’s status as a borderland has until now protected it and its cranes from overexploitation. This has been vital to the survival of the great birds, for the red-crowned crane and several other endangered species use it as a breeding ground. But the closing decades of the twentieth century have brought such a rush toward economic development that the region is besieged with plans for dams and industrial development, threatening an environmental disaster. Cranes invented globalization long before people did, for, with the exception of South America, they have colonized every habitable continent, and their migrations can carry them over almost half the globe. So it is ironic that our own species’s economic globalization is such a threat to them.
It was this threat to the Amur’s cranes that brought Peter Matthiessen to the river in the summer of 1992. He participated in a shipboard conference whose aim was to create a huge international crane reserve that would take in the borderlands of Russia, China, and Inner and Outer Mongolia. One might imagine that a project of such significance would have been organized by the United Nations or some equally eminent body, but this was not the case. Instead the conference was the brainchild of an extraordinary American named George Archibald, who is chairman of the International Crane Foundation and a self-confessed “craniac.” The foundation’s headquarters at Baraboo, Wisconsin, is the only place on earth where one can see all fifteen species of cranes in an afternoon, and for the last three decades it has been central to efforts to conserve cranes wherever they are under threat.
Attending the conference were Americans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Inner Mongolians; but to everyone’s dismay the Outer Mongolians failed to turn up because all air travel in Outer Mongolia had been abruptly and indefinitely suspended owing to fuel shortage. Language difficulties among the delegates meant that most did not mingle outside their own groups, and old animosities seemed to lurk perpetually just under the surface. Some delegates could remember the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the abduction of Korean “comfort” women, while more contemporary sore points soon emerged, such as the dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuriles, and between the Russians and Chinese over many trade and border issues. Worse, with a single exception, the Chinese had seen fit to send bureaucrats rather than biologists, and their intentions remained inscrutable with respect to crane conservation. When the discussion turned to dams, development, and international treaties for conservation, their leader deferred to a strict party line.
And yet a faint hope did manage to penetrate this seemingly hopeless gloom. It came in the form of the cranes themselves—a pair of endangered white-naped cranes—elegant birds making their way above the forest with characteristic upward flicks of their expansive wings. They were the first cranes seen on the journey and for Matthiessen at least they momentarily elevated thought from this strife-torn conference to the promise of a better future. Matthiessen uses the tale of the Amur meeting in order to bring home the realities of crane conservation today. It may be a bleak picture, yet the story moves us—even uplifts us—because of the almost Quixotic persistence of craniacs such as George Archibald (and indeed Matthiessen himself) who ignore the odds in their efforts to change the world for the betterment of cranes.
Later Matthiessen travels to Outer Mongolia in the hope of meeting the experts who could not attend the Amur River conference. It turns out that they belong to the Mongolian Ornithological Foundation (which has twelve members in all) and are craniacs of the first order. They desperately wish to cooperate in the creation of the reserve, but they are almost entirely isolated. They cannot easily meet even with their Inner Mongolian compatriots, for the border between these sister nations is closed, necessitating a long detour through Siberia for anyone trying to promote joint activities. Yet they still have their traditional culture—with its respect for cranes—largely intact. Matthiessen left this remote country with the feeling that those dozen members of the Mongolian Ornithological Foundation have a chance of preserving their country’s noblest birds.
Peter Matthiessen has such faith in human nature that he even persists in following up the po-faced Chinese delegation, paying a visit to Mr. Ma of Harbin, the only Chinese biologist to join the cruise on the Amur. Matthiessen arrives in disarray, his travel plans having fallen foul of a creaking and suspicious bureaucracy. Into this crisis Ma steps and somehow saves the day, going into battle with the airlines before inviting Matthiessen back to his tiny apartment for supper. “Gan bei! Three times Gan bei!” the pair shout as they down the perfumed and highly alcoholic Chinese vodka being served up. After a while Ma insists that in future Matthiessen must address him as “Lo Ma,” meaning “Old Dog.”
Because so many crane species use its wetlands, China has a large part in the maintenance of the world’s cranes, yet it seems to be the nation least well equipped to deal with preserving them. The Chinese bureaucracy robs its employees of their humanity, imposing a centralization of power that strangles human enterprise. It also promotes the spread of a uniform, Han Chinese–based culture that ruthlessly steamrolls minority beliefs, destroying the distinctive ways in which these cultures have preserved their own peculiar ecologies. In Beijing Matthiessen encounters what one imagines must be his ultimate nightmare—millions of people who are so estranged from nature that they seem terrified of any wild animal whatever. Their world view is brought forcibly home to him when his driver smashes a small pink gecko foolish enough to traverse the car’s windshield. Matthiessen’s angry despair is almost palpable.
As awful as all of this is, the true monster in the Chinese story is the Three Gorges Dam. Perhaps not wishing to depress his readers too much, Matthiessen relegates to a footnote his account of the horrific potential of this project to destroy the best of China. There we learn that the project promises to create millions of human refugees, smother the most beautiful gorges on our earth, extinguish two species of crane, and destroy the Chinese alligator and Yangtze dolphin. Infuriatingly, either through ignorance or craven greed, an early report by Canadian experts actually recommended that the project go ahead, and it is this report that the Chinese now wave in the face of all objections.
From North and East Asia, Matthiessen, in pursuit of migrating cranes, takes us south, into the Indian subcontinent. Here it becomes clear that many crane species have achieved an intimate coexistence with people, particularly where rice agriculture has opened new potential habitats as the old marshes have been destroyed. Over recent decades, however, human activity has intensified, the people demanding ever more produce from a finite earth. This has reduced cranes in many areas to eking out a living from handouts. In the worst cases the feeding stations established by well-wishers have become the focus of tacky tourist developments. It is a beggarly end for such noble birds.
The complex nature of the relationships between cranes and humans is best illustrated at Keoladeo Ghana Bird Reserve in the state of Bharatpur, India. There in a wetland of 7,165 acres the Siberian crane finds its essential winter refuge. The reserve is surrounded by teeming humanity and until 1982 the people living around the reserve used it to pasture their livestock; but the grazing pressure became so intense that it began to threaten the Siberian cranes. In response the authorities banned grazing and constructed an earthen wall around the reserve; this caused such violent protests among those who traditionally grazed their livestock there that five protesters were shot dead in riots. Now the ungrazed marshes have become choked with wetland vegetation, once again threatening the habitat that the cranes need to survive. It seems that over the last twenty years the balance between cranes, humans, and their domesticated megafauna, which had persisted since time immemorial, has been upset. All of these living beings are to one degree or another interdependent, yet finding a new way forward will be difficult indeed.
The cranes of the Keoladeo Reserve face an even more terrible threat, however, for on their long migration between India and Siberia they must pass over some of the most strife-torn regions of our planet. They break their journey in Afghanistan at a lake known as Ab-e-estada, where they rest and feed, and from there fly into the Kabul valley. Just six birds made the journey in 1992—a pitifully small remnant of a once grand migration. One wonders what a crane making the journey today would witness as it soars northward over this saddest of lands. Although it seems too much to hope for, perhaps some visionary may one day see humanity’s common love of cranes as providing a basis for a new relationship between cultures that now are so deeply embedded in conflict there.
Matthiessen tracks other populations of cranes into the “Asian tiger” economies of the Far East, which, he notes ironically, have all so abused their environments as to have exterminated their real tigers long ago. In the 1990s these “tiger” economies had their economic teeth drawn. The fate of cranes is often intimately tied to changed human fortunes, but the impact of this recent economic collapse on the birds is yet to be seen.
Matthiessen gives a clear illustration of the effects of war and peace on cranes in his brief history of the Korean demilitarized zone. He writes,
In ancient times, before the settlement by early agriculturalists, the rich Chorwon soil supported a noble forest in which tiger, leopard, and black bear were quite common. In the centuries that followed, the forest was gradually cleared away, and the wild creatures adapted to mankind as best they could. Then came the din of modern war, and afterward a great silence. As some wild things recovered and the land cleansed itself, the migrant birds returned. The cranes increased until their rolling call was heard up and down the valley. But now, as another century draws to a close, it appears that the cranes may fall silent again.
The silence of the cranes will be forced, Matthiessen fears, by industrial development if there is peace between the Koreas. That will inevitably destroy this last crane habitat as thoroughly as it has already done throughout South Korea.
The “New Worlds” of North America and Australia offer a much brighter picture for the relatively few crane species that inhabit them. In 1996 Archibald and Matthiessen traveled to the Gulf of Carpentaria to observe Australia’s only two crane species, the sarus and the brolga, or “native companion,” so called because of its close association with Australia’s Aboriginal people. Matthiessen describes the Aboriginal-owned Morr Morr pastoral property and the surrounding tropical savanna as a pristine refuge. “Of all the world’s cranes, the brolga and sarus of the Gulf of Carpentaria are perhaps the least affected by the dire consequences of man’s rise to civilization. To a degree unequaled anywhere except Antarctica, the ecosystems are pristine and uncontaminated….”
The synergy between the brolga and Aborigines is intriguing, and has evolved over some 45,000 years. The bird has immeasurably enriched Aboriginal culture, informing dance, song, and myth in addition to feeding the tribes. In return, it is likely that Aboriginal fire management of the land has benefited the birds, opening feeding grounds, limiting the chance of ambush by predators, and protecting nesting areas. Unfortunately Matthiessen was denied the opportunity of investigating this intriguing partnership since he arrived in the wet season, when the local tribes desert the area and take up residence in nearby towns.
Today, North America is also a haven for cranes, though this continent’s two species have had a less fortunate history. The ancestors of the sandhill crane—some four feet tall, with gray plumage—arrived in the continent around nine million years ago. It is the most abundant crane species in North America—indeed the most abundant in the world. Matthiessen takes us to the Lillian Rowe Sanctuary on the Platte River in Nebraska, where most of the continent’s 650,000 sandhill cranes pause on their annual migration, arriving in March on their way north to the breeding grounds. Sixty years ago it had been so intensively hunted that the bird was a rarity; but today in this very special place one can have as many as 10,000 cranes in view at once. Matthiessen marvels at the spectacle they provide as they roost at sunset: “The multitudes alight around us, drifting and falling from on high in sky-darkening numbers and unearthly clamor.” His description has a sad ring about it, reading like a pale echo of the greatest wildlife marvel ever offered by North America—the nesting of the now extinct passenger pigeon.
The Platte River is obstructed by over forty dams, which have restricted water flow and allowed dense riverside vegetation to build up over the pebble beds that were once swept clean every year by floods. This threatens the sandhill crane by allowing predators such as coyote and bobcat the opportunity of ambush. Worse still, the richest nation on earth plans another forty dams on this single river, which would restrict its flow to around 20 percent of its original volume. If the United States decides that it no longer has room for cranes, then what hope is there for the species in populous India and China?
America is also home to a more magnificent if infinitely sadder species, the whooping crane, which probably arrived in North America from Eurasia during the last ice age. One of the largest and most spectacular of our planet’s birds—five feet tall with white plumage—it belongs to the ornithologist’s “group of three,” the predominantly white cranes that are the most endangered of them all. Matthiessen refers to the members of this group as “emblems of the purity of water, earth, and air” upon which we all depend.
The whooping crane is the most endangered member of its family. By the 1920s, hunting and habitat destruction brought it to within a few shotgun blasts of extinction. For over four decades there were, thought the world, around a dozen breeding pairs, which each year undertook a 2,600-mile-long migration from their breeding ground in Canada’s Northwest Territories to the southern United States. Beginning in the late 1950s, this remnant began making a slow and uncertain recovery, and today the original wild flock consists of around 175 creatures.
Two expensive, long-term conservation programs illustrate just how difficult it is to bring such a gravely imperiled species back from the brink. Beginning in 1967, Canadian and US researchers have removed one precious egg of each pair laid by the wild flock in order to establish a captive flock. This is justifiable because the second chick rarely survives. In one program, 380 eggs were placed in the nests of sandhill cranes breeding near Gray’s Lake, Idaho. If the foster parents could raise the chicks and lead them on migration, the whoopers might then have the advantage of the relatively short eight-hundred-mile journey the sandhills took to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Many whooper chicks were successfully raised by sandhill parents, but almost all of them met a sad fate. A large number perished in collisions with power lines, while others, Matthiessen writes, were “shot by local hunters, who resented being fined or imprisoned for shooting the big white birds which they professed they had confused with snow geese.” Enough survived to breeding age, however, to give some hope. But this was sadly dashed when it was realized that the whoopers had been thoroughly acculturated by their sandhill parents. They did not know how to seek each other out, or how to form the vital pair bond. At the time of writing, just a single survivor of this celibate population graces the swamps of Bosque del Apache.
The second experiment was even more arduous, for it involved the hand-rearing and release of birds in the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in Florida. The birds were reared by people disguised in crane suits, so that the hatchlings would not become acculturated to humans. When the birds were first released, mortality rates were horrifically high because they had not been “taught” how to avoid predators, while shootings and collisions with power lines continued to take their toll. In the last few years, however, more young have survived and in 1999 the released birds produced their first eggs. None hatched, but the following year the birds laid again and on March 16, 2000, the first whooper to be born in the United States for over sixty years broke free of its shell. Tragically it lived for just over two months before being killed by a bobcat. The true costs of the effort to restore the whooping crane must be astronomical—likely in the tens of millions of dollars. It’s a price we need never have paid, had we not first brought the whoopers so low.
The Birds of Heaven is a beautifully produced book. Its dust jacket is printed in the striking black, white, and red colors of the red-crowned crane, and three sections of color plates by Robert Bateman ably portray all fifteen species. In its closing pages Matthiessen looks back over four decades to the first of his books, Wildlife in America, a masterly and influential work that documented the sad decline of natural America in the face of the European onslaught. When written in the late 1950s, there were just twenty-six whooping cranes on earth, and the full magnitude of destruction visited on North America by its European settlers was just being realized. Matthiessen has much to be proud of, for his books have had a vital part in turning that sad record in a new direction.
In 1961 Peter Matthiessen lived among the Dani of West New Guinea (now the Indonesian province of West Papua), at a time when Western influence was just a few years old. As it is for many New Guinea tribes, here the daily affairs of humans are seen to be mirrored in the social life of birds. Yet the Dani take this connection very far, and for them birds become explicit symbols of human mortality, perhaps because the spark of life that burns within them is so fragile. Dani refer to warriors killed on the field of battle as “dead birds,” and their cries and decorations are reflected in the minds and bodies of their human counterparts. There is just a touch of Matthiessen’s own sense of mortality in The Birds of Heaven—a feeling of having very much more to do, and little time.
Perhaps it was this sense that left me deeply troubled as I turned the last pages of The Birds of Heaven. I felt doubtful that humanity and cranes could long coexist. Yet as Matthiessen makes clear, the quixotic “craniacs” must somehow triumph over the global economy and unthinking bureaucracies of the world, for the love of cranes may be one of humanity’s best chances for a dignified future. The Birds of Heaven has convinced this reader at least that we have much to fear from a world without cranes.