Sandhill cranes in flight

Folding Cranes in the Golden Hour

By Kathryn Winograd

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We hadn’t expected this. Not this siege. Not this swoop of cranes through the bare sky.

 
I watched, in a looping YouTube video, the two small hands of a woman with black fingernails fold a paper crane. Over and over I did this. I ran into links for origami often then, specifically, orizuru, or folded crane, the best known of origami, the flat folded arts, because it is the easiest to create, because cranes live for a thousand years, because whoever folds a thousand cranes will find their “heart’s desire.”

There are sixteen folds for paper cranes, each with names like mountain and valley, petal and squash. And if, after the sixteenth fold, an orizuru of diamond-shaped wings and bent head emerges, you can string together a thousand, make a wish, let them float on the wind.  

I would pull a sheet of paper from my printer to fold just one. But I was lost.

 

Some days, I was in tears, a frequent occurrence that I didn’t quite understand. Mornings, the ravens blew past quickly, guides of the soul, I’ve read, spinning over me toward the hill brow like sprung arrows or bent sickles to harvest a cold sky. One night I read what, through the whole past year of the pandemic, I had scrawled in a leather journal inked with the sketch of the sparrow. So little I knew then: my worries over the faint freezes of spring or the wood that someone else had cut for me and piled in our far fields stolen—not knowing, then, what dead to come, what silence, what country wrecked in the gas flares. 

Nor did I know what my dear friend M. would tell me—that her back hurt—and how helpless I would be for the rest of that Covid year, and still this year and every year, I think, to come, drilling through medical statistics for the “right” statistics until, finally—driving in the car to bring her a book on holistic healing to help her, to leave it at her doorstep, to wave at her through her living room window—I thought to check the book’s page on ovarian cancer. And I ripped it out. 

Road to San Luis Valley
Photo by LY Photos.
Lila, a fellow community college faculty retiree, sent me a message. Ten thousand sandhill cranes had arrived in the alpine desert of the San Luis Valley near the Great Sand Dunes. And that year, because of the pandemic, the Monte Vista Crane Festival would be zoomed.

What could it mean, I wondered, to sit in your study with its walls of books, a field guide in your hands, your binoculars and camera hanging useless from your chair, while you watch the pixel images of 10,000 cranes dotting the upper limits of your laptop, the video clips of professional birders and speakers squinting into the barrels of their cameras while they talked you through cranes rising, cranes falling, cranes, for the lectures, silenced? 

The cranes linger, Lila texted me, to feed in the spring wetlands, to eat old potatoes and seed spilled in the farmers’ winter fields before they catch the thermals northward. I tried to imagine that: birds, thousands, blowing for millions of years through the Central Flyway and the Great Plains to a stopover just a few hours from me before taking off again to lands so distant I only saw them once through my breath on the window of a jet high over a canvas of snow, a grosgrain of caribou I imagined unraveling beneath me.

Even to name that geography, to say those numbers, feels magical.

The online trailer for the Zoom festival displayed waving grass seeds and the sandhill crane shadows winging through the golden hour, what the canned photography class I was taking online called the moments, sunrise or sunset, when the light goes slant and gilds the world.

Lila, whose father taught her the art of film photography in basement darkrooms, said this was the time to go to the valley to see the sandhill cranes. 

 

I am new to photography. One morning, when it seemed all I loved disappeared, ghosts I kept in my palms, the tip of my tongue, I took my camera to an abandoned salt quarry near the river. A woman—old, I thought—hugged her knees on the bank above me—my age, I realize now. And she did not waver in the hour I circled the quarry’s wide lake, peering one-eyed through my lens for a bird, any bird.

Nothing. Not until I arrived back at where I had started: water I had not noticed before, spilling out of a pipe at my feet from a blue reservoir poised somewhere high above me, water so quiet I thought that this must be why the birds rush in. Then heron hugged the lakeshore; then the heron balanced on the gray curve of a tree so many years fallen that it floated on the water’s light.

Why did I stand at the water’s edge, I wondered, one more silent woman, the camera heavy in my cold hands, waiting for the stretch of a wing, for the long feet dangling in departure? And then the heron shed a bit of itself, a blue shade the camera opened its eye for, then shut.  Soon I would drive home. Soon I would cook, sit by a fire, and prop my camera at the table’s edge to see what I had taken.

“I think we’re in a volcano.” Lila pointed to a ring of rocks that surrounded the valley as far as I could see.

I kept asking myself: Why? Why do I feel this need to travel, to see the sandhill crane?  It was still the pandemic, as it is today, and then I was unvaccinated. Lila, somehow luckier than me at 73, was immune after six weeks of lying prone on her couch from Covid. That last fall, I traveled, too, my husband and I driving abandoned highways past the occasional semi convoy to bury my mother’s ashes 1,200 miles and 17 hours away in the country graveyard where my father lies.

I kept asking my husband: Do I hold the little box on the front seat in its blue velvet bag? Buckle it in the back?

In Japan, it is said that the delicate paper folds of origami mirror the red-crowned crane, what flies the soul to heaven. I read that an ancestor of the sandhill crane was carbon-dated from ten million years ago, this species living longer than any other on earth. And that Aristotle thought the crane, so long flying, must hold a stone in its beak to wake it, if the stone were to drop. And that a 19th century explorer once recorded 2,000 cranes flying over the Holy Land, what now only hundreds shadow. Cranes are the departed soul, cranes link birth and death, cranes are the grace of the divine. And if I could not have faith, Chekhov, one of my husband’s favorite writers, said I must look for it then, must know why the crane flies.

My photography class said to experiment with the camera’s shutter, to slow down speed, to see what the world becomes. Perhaps, I thought, there could be something beautiful to standing fully still, your head tilted toward a high desert sky, while cranes, thousands, fly up like every-day angels.

My friend M. received her diagnosis that first fall of the pandemic. Then chemo, isolation, surgery, chemo. Sometimes I drove past her home just to wave, to leave bread and cookies and, once, after her son shaved her head, a wool cap lined with fleece.  

Before leaving on this trip, I ordered washi, a special handmade paper for origami.

 

“I think we’re in a volcano.”

Lila pointed to a ring of rocks that surrounded the valley as far as I could see.  

We had stopped for lunch up Poncha Pass off the side of Highway 285. We left between snowstorms, flaunting fate, I think now, in a red hybrid RAV4, roadside signs flashing dire predictions as we followed the mountains to San Luis Valley, a wreckage, I read somewhere, of ancient continental plates.

Lila and I turned in circles. Dry fields, a scrim of snow stretched across the highway toward the fourteeners of the Sangre de Christo and San Juan Mountains. Next to the dusty little runout where I had parked, tire tracks led past a broken fence and dried sagebrush to rocks that jutted out like rotted teeth or the fossils of stegosaurus plates. A hundred million years ago, this valley teetered on the brink of an ancient sea.

“I don’t care if it’s a volcano or not,” Lila said. “I’m going to say it is.”

 Lila told me that she couldn’t understand why she was still here, what her function was in the world.

“I’m waaay past child-bearing,” she said. “And forget sex.”

She laughed.

Lila was a tough professor, revered for decades by students forever milling about her office door. She told me that the only place she did not feel like a 73-year-old woman was at the camera shop, because the young men and women behind the counters saw her as Lila the photographer, not “some old woman.”

Lila asked if I had felt the invisible woman syndrome yet, what estrogen once lent to me, I suppose, gone—a change in power so gradual that I had forgotten the noise I once made in the world without ever trying. I told Lila about a fellow graduate student from almost 40 years ago I ran into at a writer’s conference.

“What’s happened to you?” she had asked.

Lila fished through her Whole Foods bag for the sandwiches she made for the trip, halved, she said, for better handling. And then the two of us, behind the wind-block of a red hybrid, ate chicken sandwiches in a broken volcano, true or not.

Sandhill cranes in field
Photo by LY Photos.
It was March. It was a year since my mother saw white blizzards and then went blind, soon to die. A year since a bat or a pangolin or a man or a woman in a lab in a far city did or did not let loose a virus. How many lonely? How many looking out of their windows at streets of stray dogs and perpetual stoplights blinking stop, go, stop?  

I kept thinking about Call the Midwife, the show I binged-watched through nine seasons that year: babies crowning, mothers living or not, nuns accepting for some reason still beyond me every moment given them. And how I was in tears at the end of every show, happy or sad. 

My older sister said to take each day as it came. But when does hope come, I kept asking myself? Or health, or happiness, or the good fortune of the crane promised by a god I knew nothing of, a crane, or a friend I had cried over for months, maybe living a thousand years?

“If I’m here in five,” my friend M. said before I left to see the sandhill cranes, the two of us sitting for the first time in lawn chairs in her backyard, yards apart. Beneath my mask, I could think of nothing to say.

Lila told me later, as we traveled the valley, that, yes, according to a map we picked up at the Great Sand Dunes gift shop, we were, indeed, traveling through a caldera, a collapsed volcanic crater, and that this valley was a valley of rifts, part of the Great Rio Grande rift, Earth’s skin thinning some 35 million years ago and leaving in its wake everything, and everyone, I realize now, vulnerable.

 

Lila and I drove toward Monte Vista and the refuge. Slabs of farm fields vanished over the horizon. We kept watching for cranes, neither of us speaking, both of us fearing that somehow we would miss them, miss their great soaring, their migration by forces we could neither feel nor see: star compass or gravitational force or something else unworldly we knew nothing of.

“These are potatoes,” Lila said.  

Lila aimed the telephoto lens of her Nikon D3500, same as mine, out the car window, tracking the stones heaped along the roadside ditches. “Perhaps the potatoes are why farm fields are better than wildlife refuges to see the cranes.”

Lila called the stones potatoes three or four more times until I pulled off the road to peer at the piles with my own camera.

Stones.

“They are stones,” I told her.

“No,” Lila said. “Potatoes.”

I readied myself.

“And even if they are not, I am going to say they are.” Lila settled back into the car seat and put her camera down. “Potatoes.” She laughed her deep belly-laugh.

I began to wonder what world Lila lived in. If she wanted volcanoes, the world was a volcano. If she wanted potatoes, the world gave her potatoes.

And sex, too, it seemed.

“You know what it was like at that time, don’t you?” Periodically, throughout the drive, Lila told me stories about her exploits as a young ski instructor in Aspen during the 70s. At that time, just a Midwestern girl at a Midwestern high school I didn’t know. 

“High times!” Lila chortled. “Drugs! parties! And of course, like I always say, dot dot dot, the inevitable happened.”

My husband, who knows Lila, once said that no matter what Lila might sometimes feel, or what happens, she always has—he fumbled for the word—a zest.

“That’s it,” he said. 

Lila took out her camera. “This is one straight road.” She peered to the north and east. I thought about the folds of origami, how I was not very good at it, how I had tried to crease and uncrease the printer paper into valley and mountain and bird, my fingers pressing fault line after fault line into the paper, but the triangular wings and the peaks of beak and tail never materializing. It takes 50 hours to fold a thousand cranes, a senbazuru, and if you were to lose just one, to give just one away, you lose your wish. Once there was a mother who ran with her toddler through black rains, what they called the radiation fall of Hiroshima. Too few years later, I read, the toddler grown to be the girl, Sadako, folded cranes in a hospital bed, out of pill bottle labels, out of any paper she could find, folding a thousand, or not, before she died, a thousand cranes, or not, buried with her.  

Behind the rampant greasewood and the rabbit brush, the Great Sand Dunes were a faint flour of light. In the folded visitor’s guide I still have, I read that friction from the mountain passes and the oppositional winds tamp down the broken fragments of volcanic rock that blow across this salt-brined valley and trap them.

Single sandhill crane flying against blue sky
Photo by LY Photos.
We entered Monte Vista from the north, turned onto Highway 160 to get to the Best Western Movie Manor, the highest-starred hotel we could find in town, where every room is named for a dead Hollywood star. Each room looked out at a drive-in movie screen planted in a weedy field. That night, some half-cartoon, half-human Tom and Jerry show with bad reviews from over 30 years ago would play.

We headed out to the refuge at once. Soon it would be the golden hour. We spotted a few sandhill cranes silhouetted against the farm fields and debated the color of their feathers, brown or white, so intently that I passed the refuge entrance. I finally pulled into the dirt parking lot and looked out toward what I thought was the Rio Grande River and the cranes feeding there.

We got out of the car, fumbling with coats and camera bags and telescopic lenses. All the while sandhill cranes, gray and red-crowned, swept over us like waves roiling up from the wetlands and the irrigation ditches.

We hadn’t expected this. Not this siege. Not this swoop of cranes through the bare sky, their fretted wings pitched and humming in the close chill air. We hurried from the car, forgetting aperture, forgetting shutter speed. Then the cranes were gone, cars too late nudging behind us, drivers and passengers calling out to us, asking us amid the leftover Canada geese and the blackbirds soldered to the weeping cattails, where were the cranes?

We followed the footpaths through the refuge, past ditches, past soil, snow- or salt-encrusted. Photographers with lenses as long as our arms camped out at the pedestrian benches. Tumbleweeds, wind witches, they’re called, snagged on the fences. 

“They’re blooming,” Lila said, pointing to the little dried-up flower spigots on rabbit or sage brush.

I said nothing, touched the husk of them.

We scanned the empty skies, finally giving up as the last sun glazed the distant crags gold.

“Look!” Lila said. And the cranes dropped down from the skies, bowed and leapt in the air, in those glittering places we could barely see, that even the 300-millimeter lens of our Nikons could not catch.

We cannot, in the art of orizuru, cut or glue together but only transform, folding into air the shapes of love we cannot save—only set, one by one, tenderly afloat.

Lila and I packed up our cameras and headed back to a steak diner her “potato” friend recommended. I ordered the only item on the menu offered on a pandemic night: filet mignon.  We toasted the day with our masks down.

Then Lila worried over my sadness, asking if I was trying to understand death or the end of life, my mother, my aunt, my uncle all succumbing to that year of the pandemic, and my friend M. in her illness, each life winnowing down to the same isolation, as I saw it, that no one shares. Lila told me about her mother dying, her mother in such pain, and how Lila took the vials of morphine the hospice had given her and helped her mother each time she was in pain to swallow them, Lila holding her mother’s hand until her mother quieted, and then walking downstairs to dry the dishes.

“I always feared I killed her,” Lila said, telling me this, I think, to comfort me.

I told Lila of my guilt, how I had finally begged to have my mother sent to the hospice after relentless emergency room visits, writing out such a long list of her ailments and confusions that I left the hospice consultant silent as she stared at the waxen figure of my mother in her hospital bed. I didn’t tell Lila how I kept touching my mother’s forehead, her shoulder, her hands in the hospice, hoping to comfort her, afraid of being wrong, and how my mother, who would not open her eyes to me, asked, “Why do you have to be so pesky?”

 

In my hotel room, named for Grace or Marilyn or some other dead star, a noisy portable heater warded off freezing in the bathroom pipes. I pulled open the curtains to a shock of new snow bunkered beneath the streetlights, what the highway signs had warned me of. 

I stood there, remembering when I was young and first married, living in the house my husband’s maiden aunts had built in an old Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. How our widowed neighbor covered her furniture in clear plastic. How so many evenings before her husband’s death, my husband and I had talked with her and her husband over the backyard lilacs, the air thick with his pipe smoke. 

They had met at an eastern European train station at the end of the Holocaust, her husband-to-be endlessly paging his family, all lost, the widow told me, and only she, from another village, recognizing the names he called, only she, who would be his wife, answering him.

“But I called out his name when he was dying,” she told me. “And he turned his head away.” She told me this story each time she saw me through the lilacs until she moved east to be with her children. “I don’t understand it,” she kept saying to me.

For a long time, I leaned against the motel window, lit up by snow and the Tom and Jerry movie that kept blurring against the glass. I kept thinking about the squares of fine origami paper I had ordered, of the thousands and thousands of cranes I had yet to fold. And how I would return home soon to run my fingers along what we cannot, in the art of orizuru, cut or glue together but only transform, folding into air the shapes of love we cannot save—only set, one by one, tenderly afloat. 

And then I wiped the window glass clean.

Skein of sandhill cranes against blue sky
Photo by LY Photos.
In the morning, Lila found a café through GPS. It shared a parking lot, cratered by snow and 18-wheelers, with a potato factory. Of course. Lila and I put on our masks and stared through the restaurant window, wondering if we should eat inside, which, until that last night, I hadn’t done for a year. A family circled together in the middle of the restaurant, a backroom, stocked with long tables for parties and meetings, empty. A young woman, Amish or Mennonite, led us back. 

I remember how happy Lila was that morning, ordering her breakfast from a small plastic menu the waitress wiped clean. We talked about bears and cabins and husbands, and suddenly, I, too, felt so light of heart in that dim disheveled backroom of a restaurant that I didn’t even mind how fleeting I knew that moment would be. Or that the somber young waitress in the ankle dress, knowing that I would tip her anyway, did not smile back behind her mask at the chatter of two silly old women.

I asked Lila how she got together with her husband, whom she had met unexpectedly at his family cabin, years ago, Lila by chance stopping by with his friends, her husband-to-be chain-sawing down a tree until he walked the mountain side, impatient and gruff, to meet her.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I must have wiggled my ass at him or something.” She laughed her Lila laugh. “And like I always say, dot dot dot, the inevitable happened.”

Then the two of us talked about all the things we wanted to see, now that we had traveled a broken volcano.

And I haven’t stopped thinking about those things, even now—what could fill a life: stone walls at a dinosaur park embedded with hundreds of thousands of bones from millions of years ago, mastodon tusks rising out of melting tundra, feathers and dragonflies suspended in golden amber, carbon shadows of fish, and those ancient birds that could carry a soul, caught in the frailest of paper shale.

 

 

Kathryn WinogradKathryn Winograd is a Colorado essayist and poet who divides her time between a high-meadow mountain cabin above Phantom Canyon and the suburbs of Denver. She is the author of seven books, including Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, which received a Bronze Medal in Essay for the 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and Air Into Breath, a Colorado Book Award winner in poetry. More of her writings and publications can be found through kathrynwinograd.com.

Header photo of sandhill cranes in flight by LY Photos.

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