Bear and I took a Bear Ramble out to the Refuge and were rewarded by getting to see about a dozen happy ungulates trying to figure out if we were a threat or not. Apparently they couldn’t be sure, so we also got to watch them sproing off in a Mule Deer ballet.
Not much snow, but Bear and I have taken an extremely enlightened, Zen perspective and are enjoying what we have, which is a lot, and, at least, it’s cold. There are a lot of stories everywhere, most of which I cannot read but Bear can.
We heard ice breaking apart on one of the shallower ponds. Beautiful walk and inspiring company. Really a balm to the spirit. ❤
Last year — or any other year — I wasn’t walking out at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. It never occurred to me to walk there until this past March when Covid hit. My usual walks were at the beautiful Shriver/Wright Wildlife Area and Rio Grande Wildlife Area, but when Covid hit, the trails at Shriver/Wright became too often frequented by people who let their dogs out of the car at the parking lot to run, and the Rio Grande Wildlife Area closes from February to July so birds can nest.
I’d gone out to the Refuge to walk once when the cranes were at their peak and saw that it would be a GREAT place for the dogs and me. Well enforced leash law. Wide trails so rattlesnakes would be visible come snake season. Animals. Few people and most of them in cars. Wide, soul-filling vistas.
It took a little while for my Big White Dog to accept it. Livestock guardian dogs don’t like change, but I knew the more often we went, the more content she would be and soon she would turn it — with its smells and landscape — into her territory, and so she has. I’ve written a lot about it on this blog because it’s been one very good thing in my life during this time. I’ve (obviously) loved every moment I’ve spent with the cranes. Endured the deer flies and mosquitoes of summer, the admission price to summer sunsets. And best of all (so far), fall with chill days, cranes and beautiful skies. At one point this fall my friends became interested in going along and that has been very nice. Once in spring, my next-door neighbor and I took a long walk out there and talked about so many of the things that were troubling us.
Still, winter is my favorite season, and I’ve been anticipating the experience of the Refuge in snow and cold, in winter’s angled light and often silvery skies.
The migraines have been a little worrisome and the approaching holiday? Well, as it happens, I’m not crazy about Christmas as a celebration anyway, but it still has a quiet and important place in my heart and life. Over the years, as many of my Christmases have been solitary since all my family has died, I’ve experienced some miraculous Christmas Eves, so many that I no longer plan anything. I just let them happen. One year my stepson and his wife showed up with German Christmas (my step-daughter-in-law is German) and suddenly I was celebrating Christmas Eve exactly as I’d celebrated it growing up — dinner and a gift exchange. Sandi, who’s from the area near Dresden, brought all the foods she was used to on Christmas Eve. I baked mince pie. It was a warm and lovely evening spent with two people I love dearly. Another year I was surprised to find myself riding a horse when I’d thought there was no way I could get on one.
Lately, in the midst of this strange year, I’ve felt (as many of us have) the melancholy of the holidays combined with the sad statistics of Covid-19 and lurking dread of 45 who just won’t stop. And so…
This morning I was finally feeling brave enough to face the glare of snow, and I took Bear to the Refuge. It was the first time I’d walked there in winter and it was magical. Silent and immense with the infinitely varying sky that’s a feature of the San Luis Valley. Bear was blissful — snow holds smells to the ground the way grass doesn’t — and I was happy that animal tracks told me something about what she was smelling. Hundreds of ducks had taken flight the moment we arrived and I watched them circle and dive and land back on the pond. Walking on snow is dream walking. I felt like I could go forever. I saw how great this place will be on X-country skies and felt a lilt of anticipation. When we turned around and the angle of the sun changed, I watched a hawk circle in the silvery winter sky.
“Spend Christmas with us,” said the Refuge. I looked around at the few trees and bushes, thought of the hungry birds, and of putting suet balls on one or two of them on Christmas Eve.
“I will. Thank you for the invitation,” I said, excited to be spending Christmas Eve with someone I love.
Sometimes coincidence is eerie. Monday, having realized that I have digital cameras (duh) I took one out the Refuge and got some good photos of Sandhill cranes specifically to share them on my blog with all the patient people who’ve heard — read — one crane rhapsody after another. Yesterday Teddy and I went out and found that the cranes had finally flown south to their winter home at Bosque Apache near Roswell, New Mexico.
I was struck at the coincidence. Maybe Monday was the last day of the cranes at the Refuge. Maybe the squall that passed through with some violence Tuesday night sent them packing. Whatever their “radar” that tells them it’s time to get out of here, they were gone.
The Refuge was silent. Geese and ducks — who are still here because there is still open water — don’t spend the day in conversation. It seems they only speak up when they have something to say. In a little while, the Refuge will be silent with winter. I have never walked out there in winter, so I’m looking forward to it. If we get snow, I could ski on the road. I don’t know what birdlife I will find — if any. I’m expecting to see the tracks of deer and elk. I’m also expecting some wild and bitter winds — the first tentative assault of that yesterday sent me out in a down anorak.
The Sandhill cranes are still here. It’s amazing and wonderful. Teddy and I headed out yesterday and, for Teddy, the biggest excitement (except going with me) was flushing two ducks out of a ditch. He didn’t mean to, and I didn’t mean to, but those guys startle easily.
When we were at our turnaround point, the cranes, thousands of them, suddenly took to the air, calling loudly to each other and the world below. It was a spectacular show, but what interested me most was seeing whatever had set them in motion. I did, though not close enough to identify it exactly. A large hawk or eagle was flying low and fast away from the pond, having given up on what he must have thought would be an easy meal.
After watching five hours of nature documentaries (BTW this is NOT a good strategy for relaxation; stick to film versions of Jane Austen novels), I started thinking about the Romantic poets and the so-called “Romantic Era.” Is that where our attitude toward nature changed? There are writers who argue that it is, that until the early 19th century humans regarded the whole big mess of kill-or-be-killed reality as an adversary. I can’t accept that kind of blanket perspective about anything, but it’s probably true that before there were tunnels through mountains, mountains were less appealing, more obstacle than wonder.
The argument kind of hinges on how many early cultures ultimately began raising food on farms rather than gathering random seeds and chasing the woolly mammoth. Thinking about that, I began to see a small domestic farm as a refrigerator. “Grog, honey? Next time you go out, maybe you could bring back a live prairie rooster and hen? You were saying that there are hardly any prairie hens out there any more! I think we could just build a little enclosure and feed them and have the hens we want and their eggs, too!”
“WHAT??? Are you impugning my hunting skills?”
“No no nothing like that, but you said it was getting harder and harder to find them.”
I’m sure it happened EXACTLY like that. Word for word.
In any case, no one has domesticated the Sandhill crane. They are hunted in various parts of the United States, but apparently are not easy prey. Ask any eagle.
“Though not quite as prehistoric as dinosaurs, sandhill cranes are thought to be the oldest living species on Earth, with fossilized specimens dating to 2.5 million years ago. Over those roughly 250,000 generations, the birds have gotten pretty wary. That’s why successful crane hunters have big spreads of hyperrealistic decoys, spend more time patterning birds than they do actually hunting them, and take care not to overhunt specific areas.” Outdoor Life “Stealth and Decoy Tips”
Thinking about this led me to think about how many early people regarded their prey animals as gods. The plains’ Indians believed that a buffalo they were able to kill was giving itself to them.
That makes me think that we have always seen the beauty in the wild creatures around us, maybe even mores in the days when we lived together with them. And Sandhill cranes are VERY wary, though, on my last couple of forays out into their world, they have flown directly over me as if they finally got the message that I’m not going to kill them. I believe they are every bit as observant of me — more even — as I am of them.
Though I usually take a dog out at a particular time of day, sometimes I get an inexplicable urge to take one out RIGHT NOW. This happened today around 11:30 am. As I neared the Refuge, there were thousands of cranes rising, circling up, higher and higher. I parked Bella and got out. This is what I heard and saw:
I’m still a little “migrainy” and it all seemed somewhat dreamlike. I was enveloped in the wild racket of thousands of cranes for the first 1/4 mile.
We took Bear’s favorite loop and I was enchanted by the pastel November colors and reminded why I always want to paint them.
As we rounded the loop’s first curve, the cranes became silent. I wondered what set them off — a predator — but WHAT predator? A cool morning. Snow falling on the mountains to the west. No way for me to know. Then, we rounded the third curve on this 1/3 mile loop and I saw…
My eyes filled with tears AGAIN. Oh man… And then I realized, “This is my parade! I painted this. Naturally THIS is playing the band and sending out ‘floats,’ the whole thing!” Birds being floats, of course.
I loved the thought and it seemed right. My big painting depicts one of the quietest moments in this silent (except for animals, wind, and the occasional “Hello!”) place. It’s the kind of scene revealed by hours in a wild place. It doesn’t take your breath away or stimulate awe. It’s just a quiet crane moment on a dull day. It’s a love letter from me to the Refuge. My parade couldn’t have been any better, I thought, and then…
I noticed something land on the top of one of the cottonwood trees…
Soon after I took his photo, this lovely being launched himself from the tree. You can see that moment in the featured photo if you look really really hard, then swooped down in front of Bear and me, then up and began circling the group of cranes and other water birds now hanging around the pond. “Like a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend.” (Hopkins, “The Windhover”)
“What a beautiful float!” I said to Bear who wondered why we weren’t moving and smelling stuff. I also realized that I was thirsty and a little hungry, so we turned back. Just as I arrived at the parking lot I saw a pair of Harris Hawks. These guys are noisy compared to other raptors. Their adaptation to environments where prey is scarcer has also “taught” them to hunt in groups. They’re darker hawks, reddish brown and reddish black. I’ve seen this couple a few other times. They like to hunt by the paved road that runs past the Refuge.
The virus chugs on, the president denies he lost an election, 15 counties in Colorado go to the arbitrarily (?) designated “Level Red” which, when I looked it up only means:
According to the state, ‘level red’ indicates severe risk and is reserved for counties with high levels of transmission, hospitalizations, and positivity rates related to COVID-19. Under this level of restrictions, most indoor activities are prohibited or strictly limited. Among major changes with the shift to ‘level red’ includes a drop to 10 percent capacity at gyms and fitness centers, an 8 PM last call for alcohol, and the closure of indoor dining.
Surprised that this “Level Red” wasn’t much of a “thing” I saw that we now have an additional level which is “Level Purple.” At that point people would be told to stay at home. It is “a level of more extreme risk than ‘level red’, reserved for counties where hospital capacity is at extreme risk of being overloaded.“
I also learned yesterday that scientists have discerned that the virus probably DIDN’T originate in Wuhan, but somewhere in Italy. Va bene.
Such is life in America this morning, November 18, 2020. On a visceral level, since the beginning of this shit show, I’ve “thought,” “Avoid people as much as possible. Wear a mask if you must be around others.” Seems obvious to me, but for some it’s easier said than done.
That said, yesterday my neighbors and I took our little two-car caravan out to the Wildlife Refuge for a saunter. More cranes have arrived. It was a cloudless day with no wind. There was a couple there with a leashed dog so part of our walk was spent taking detours to avoid them. Bear really does not like other dogs. My friends are so amazing that they just went along with the bizarre little circuitous wandering we had to do at the beginning of the walk. It’s not like it was really punishment. We walked in splendor wherever we were.
As always, my neighbor’s husband and I were far behind the girls. We’re just slower. We noticed the girls had stopped ahead of us and were staring into a field. I knew why. There’s a big field with a small pond and the cranes LOVE it.
It was the time of the afternoon when the cranes go from the refuge to a barley field across the street so we were regaled with many large swoops of cranes taking off from this field, flying around us and off. We all stood there a long time watching the magic and talking about life right now. It was a beautiful afternoon, the kind you know belongs in a glass globe on a shelf so whenever you need a good day you can have it again.
It’s been an amazing fall out there at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. I might want tons of snow, Bear might want tons of snow, the farmers definitely want tons of snow, but the transient cranes have found so much joy out there that they’re not leaving. I saw the first of the fall migration in August. There are still large number of them hanging out in their favorite spots.
Large flocks of winter birds are beginning to arrive, and yesterday when Bear and I headed out we found Canadian geese standing and lying on the nearly frozen pond. On the banks to the north, away from the road, hundreds of cranes chatted calmly among themselves. Another group hung out on the over grown back road to the Refuge buildings.
The big ditch is running high right now which means that the Refuge is able to fill all the ponds and channels before winter emerges, and it will.
I love snow so much and want it down here in the valley where I can “have” it easily, conveniently, without driving, but there is something to be said for an open winter under these vast blue skies. If I’d known back in 2014 how little it snows down here, I might have looked for another place to live, but as the whole adventure has proven so magical, I have a feeling that down the road ( ha ha ) I might be glad to be living in a desert.
The good news this morning is that I can’t think of a single 19th century work of fiction that featured eye-rolling. Some that caused it, but none that feature it. Tomorrow is the opening of the little Christmas art show at the Rio Grande County Museum and I’m both dreading and looking forward to it. Yesterday I did some work on the large crane painting and I’m not sure at all how that painting is going. It’s an exploration, an adventure in a small sense. It’s a strange thing to be attempting to paint mystery, solitude and magic, all pretty abstract, but they were part of the moment last spring that led to the painting I’m working on now.
This is how I left it yesterday. I’ve begun painting the small trees and I’m using metallic silver oil paint. This morning I got a sense of how it will be. The paint — though not dry — was somewhat more settled and the morning light hit it at an angle.
Back in the 90s I was in Laguna Beach with a friend and saw the work of a Russian artist, an emigré, who painted large beautiful paintings that gave the effect of being icons. One of the reasons was he used metallic paint. I loved his work. I’ve used gold metallic paint (made with bronze particles) in a few paintings. I like it. It does its job really well.
In my imagination, this scene with the crane needed silver paint because it would kind of disappear depending on the light. I don’t know if it’s going to work that way, but it’s fun finding out. The thing about cranes is now you see them, now you don’t.
Bear and I took a walk yesterday and there are far fewer cranes than there have been. It’s OK. They have to go down to New Mexico for Christmas. I’ll miss them, but as I wasn’t walking out at the Refuge last winter, this will be the fourth season of discovery for me out there. I imagine it will be a Rogers and Hammerstein experience with the wind whipping down the plains… The cranes will be back in early March.
It’s not easy to record the flight of cranes in the sky with a phone. Until today, I haven’t had a lot of success, but….
There were thousands of cranes. Cranes on the ground eating and dancing, cranes in the air, doing what you see above. As Teddy and I were walking out, toward Bella, shadows of cranes passed over me and I thought, “Shadows of these birds have been passing over the earth for 350 million years.” I thought of my little life. Of the little lives of my cows that I’d just seen and talked to (I hold Teddy in my arms when we see the cows; he’s WAY too curious). The cranes had passed over the Clovis point people who once lived here. The cranes had passed over Lake Alamosa when it was above ground. The cranes had passed over the mammoths and the dinosaurs.
Then, as we had to drive the loop today, I saw an osprey on the highest point of a small cottonwood tree, the lone tree for miles. I stopped to watch him thinking about how lucky I am to walk in the shadows of Sandhill cranes with a sweet dog on a beautiful Indian summer day and spy an osprey. I thought about how I am really a single-issue voter and it’s never been abortion or racial problems or the economy or anything like that. I have always voted for this beautiful planet. As far as I can tell, nothing is more wonderful, more beautiful, or more important. Nothing and no one has ever loved me more. This is my home and home is where the heart is.
When I couldn’t imagine this afternoon could get more amazing, it did. Suddenly THOUSANDS of cranes who had been grazing on a pasture some distance away took flight and filled the sky with their darker forms.
Wow again. Our time on this planet is so brief, but afternoons like this? A little taste of the best of eternity.
Today is my brother’s birthday. He would have been 67. For a couple of months every year he was only one year younger than I, a math puzzle it took me a while to figure out. In the picture he’s 43 and I’m 45. Were in Oregon, Yachats, at a Kennedy family reunion. Our matching shirts are from Mission Trails Regional Park, the design is mine. It’s a red tail hawk flying over a map of the park. It was a great family party on the beach. My aunt reserved an entire motel facing the ocean.
November 2 is also “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead in Mexican culture, and since I’ve lived surrounded by that culture most of my life, I never forget that. It actually kind of sucks.
I decided to “celebrate” with a trip out to the Refuge with my sweet friend, Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog, while the cranes are here in full force. I don’t want to miss them. As soon as I turned on Bella, Mohammed’s Radio started to play, “We May Never Pass this Way Again” — yep. Kind of melancholy, considering whose birthday it is, but then Sirius did the whole magical radio thing and played the Medley from Abbey Road, the Beatles’ song I think of as my brother’s song. There are a lot of reasons for that, not very interesting generally, but…
I was so happy to be going out to my and Bear’s happy place and wondered, again and always, why my brother gave his life to alcohol when life is really incredibly wondrous and beautiful and amazing. Why didn’t he want it? I’ll never know and it’s a useless question. The song ended, I turned into the parking space, two guys who work there waved and smiled. They are used to me and my dogs.
And the cranes. I love watching them, listening to them, and learning about them by observing them. One thing I’ve observed is they never fly directly over me. I admire them for that. I could be a hunter. After 350 million years of surviving, they probably have that figured out but then..
…when I was barely paying attention, about a dozen flew directly over head in a V. I’m sure it was a mistake or they weren’t paying attention, but maybe they HAVE figured out that I’m just a harmless little lady standing there in wonderment. I suspect they’re quite intelligent.
Sometimes when many take flight suddenly after making a lot of racket, I can see the reason. Often it’s a raptor. I saw that today, a red-tail hawk circling a small group about 1/4 mile from me. One thing my hiking life has taught me is how to see things at a distance. It’s an art, I think. I always feel like a character in a James Fenimore Cooper novel when I spy an animal running a mile away — and I have. Last winter I saw an elk doe running hell bent for leather AWAY from something that I could’t see. I suspect a dog of some kind.
At our turnaround point, I sat down on a rock to watch the ducks on a canal and listen to the silence. It was finally so quiet that I even heard the cranes’ wings as they flew ALMOST over me. The ducks in the canal sounded like the were laughing, and there was much diving and quacking.