I guess any artist who lives in the San Luis Valley will sooner or later do a painting of a Sandhill Crane. Mine has been an image in my mind since this past March when, on a gray day, I saw a gray crane walk on the winter-gray grass in a small forest of small willow trees. Cranes are seldom solitary so that was something, too. It was an image so quiet and so personal to me — no one else was there. The monochromatic day was one of the last slumbering days of winter.
This has been percolating in my imagination since then. So, I went at the big canvas (4′ x 3 ‘/121.92 cm x 91.44 cm) and altered the underpainting a while back. It was blue sky and golden fields and blue mountains. Who’s surprised? 😉
Then the crane image. I have done a couple of drawings but the perspective/point of view kept bugging me, but now I think I got it. I had to draw it so I could use the drawing for the painting — it was so much fun.
Then, as I was drawing, an easel showed up on Facebook for sale. It is the VERY easel for which I’ve long yearned and couldn’t afford. Last Sunday, my friend gave me $100 for the horse painting, and that’s what the easel costs. An added wonder is my friend’s husband was an artist but is now blind and can’t paint. He mentioned last weekend he wished he had his old easel to give me. Well, I guess in a way that is happening. And, I get to drive up to the mountains to get it. 🙂
I don’t know what it is that makes one walk a walk and another walk a spiritual experience, but I think it has to do with my attitude, the ambient air temperature, the wonders of things around me. Still it’s a mysterious concoction, and I see no point in analyzing it very much. But today Bear and I got to attend the Services of the Big Empty.
I didn’t even want to come home. 🙂
There were hundreds of cranes. Having that amazing and angelic choir around is always inspiring. And there was a strange coincidence. As I walked along thinking, “Hmm, should I give Bear a DNA test? I don’t really KNOW she’s an Akbash dog. Maybe she IS a Siberian husky/Pyrenees mix.” That was the shelter’s guess back in the day when I adopted Bear, who was four months old. Time has shown me she has no Siberian Husky and I would know. I’ve had five. Just then, a car pulled up along side us. A nice woman was driving and to my utter surprise, Bear’s double was looking happily out the partly open back window.
The woman and I started talking but I was really mostly interested in the dog (duh). I asked, “He’s beautiful. Does he have blue eyes?”
“No,” she said, and told me his story. He was rescued from a hoarding situation in Colorado Springs, fostered for a while and then she adopted him from the Humane Society. “They say he’s a husky/Pyrenees mix. He’s 7 months old.”
He wanted out so bad and I wanted to meet him. I could tell Bear wanted to meet him too, but the woman was driving a brand new expensive car and yeah, Bear would scratch it up. Then the puppy began talking to me in Siberian Husky, one of the languages in which I’m fluent.
“Definitely husky,” I said, and answered him. That was a mistake because he almost crawled out the window. The beautiful big, white puppy’s name was “Anjo,” Portuguese for “angel.” His name at the shelter had been “di Angelo.” He was perfectly named.
The woman wanted to see cranes, and I told her where I’d been seeing them. They were flying over us at that very moment, but you don’t see as much from a car and she couldn’t see them. I also suggested she come back in March. She drove away.
From the Livestock Guardian Dog Facebook Group I’ve found that some people find they are having to move off their farms and they want to keep their Big White Dogs as pets and worry if it can work. I can speak to that. Owning an LGD as a “pet” (they’re never pets) means you just have a hairy, independent roommate of a different species to support 🙂 To live with one of these dogs, a person has to understand who they are and what they need. They don’t need to be run, they won’t like the dog park, they need a serious fence, they need something/someone to take care of, they respond to training that’s low-key, tolerant and cooperative. They learn from what their human does. Bear alerts me to cranes, hawks and hoofed animals because she’s seen that I stop to watch those things. She doesn’t bark or chase anything when we’re out there, but I think she would bark pretty fiercely if a threat appeared. She protects me if an animal seems to be charging me. I’ve had to learn to be somewhat LGD just as I had to adjust to being part Siberian Husky.
I know when I’m out there with Bear several things are going on, and they aren’t all human. In our time together I’ve learned to “be” with her. She hasn’t stopped being a livestock guardian dog just because she lives in a house and has a small yard. She’s still what she is. I’ve always given her as much of a livestock guardian roaming life as I can while keeping her safe. I LOVE being with her.
She’s also taught my mini-Aussie, who was a puppy when he came to live with us, a lot of LGD behavior. She’s trained him to live here with us.
Out at the Refuge she has her preferred routes and I have no idea why she prefers them. I believe it has to do with messages and scents she leaves and receives along those ways. One is a little nature observation loop that I’ve avoided all summer because it just has too many good hiding places for rattlesnakes.
“Our” cattle were where we like them to be and “Bessie” was there. I called her name and she turned to look at me. Huh? I looked at her a long time and tried to figure out WHAT it is about her that makes her so much prettier than the other virtually identical cows in the pasture. It might be her eyelashes which you can see pretty well in this photo…
As we walked along the road beside the fence, the little herd followed along. Bear loves them. She was as excited to see them in the distance as she is to see the kids on our way back from a neighborhood walk. These are now Bear’s cows.
I had a heart-to-heart with them, seeing as one is visibly pregnant. “Have a little girl,” I said. “Please. No more little boys. All of you, girls, from now on.”
The point was made that they had little to say about it and one of them mentioned, “Yeah, but what about the rancher and his family?” Truly unassailable bovine arguments and I nodded my assent. Still.
And the cranes kept flying over and the breeze kept blowing and Mt. Blanca offered her infinite benediction and I offered up my thanks.
I know my readers are on pins and needles about what’s happening out here in the Big Empty, so let’s get right to it.
The biggest change is the temperature. It’s in the seventies (19/20c) and that’s hot for my poor Bear who is now taking a nap on the cool tile by the front door. Snow is in the forecast for parts of Colorado, even this part. 40% so cross your fingers.
Most of the action right now is Canadian geese, frogs, horny magpies and symphonic meadowlarks. The snakes ARE out, something I know from spying a substantial amount of large snake poop. Yes. I’m interested in scat, too.
All I can tell you about the snakes in question is that they are large. They could be gopher snakes and they could be prairie rattlers. Bear has made a lot of progress with the new “command” (one doesn’t command Bear; one advises) “No, Bear, Rattlesnake.” With Bear, the command voice has to be saved for something very serious.
I went out prepared to pull my ski buff over my mouth and nose in case there were other people there, but the tourist rush (ha ha) is definitely over and there was nary an SUV for Bear and I to welcome. I like it that way, though I sincerely love the fact that 20,000 Sandhill Cranes can command that much attention. How many lives have changed as a result of a visit to this paradise? How many people have looked beyond their camera and perceived the wonder of a species that has endured for millions of years actually being in THIS world with US?
I thought about the innumerable animals that have gone extinct during the Sandhill Cranes’ long existence. I thought of all the scientists who have pondered the cause of the extinction of animal X and dodo Y. I thought of how COVID-19 has put us at the very base of survival strategy for any species which is, “Avoid danger!” I thought of the mama ground-squirrel I watched years ago defend her four tiny babies from a rattlesnake, a battle she actually won. The snake basically said, “Fuck it. This is WAY too much trouble,” unloosed his coil and slithered off into the black sage.
As I walked, I also thought of how today has been a semi-normal day, with a chat with the mailman. He was wearing a mask, and said, “If I go to work I’m in trouble and if I don’t I’m in trouble,” and then shrugged. Today, for the first time after 6 years of conversations, I noticed he has only one functioning eye. What’s wrong with me? On the way out to the Refuge, I got to talk with the kids — from the car. “Bear wants to come out,” said the little girl. Bear was whimpering in the back of Bella. Clearly she wanted out to see the kids.
I also thought about the best hikes of my life. That’s a catalog I love going through. I realized I no longer feel sad or resentful that I can’t run or easily go up and down hills. I realized that the immense sky and mountain vistas of the Big Empty have soothed my feelings of loss. This landscape is even older than the Sandhill Crane species which is still ancient enough to have witnessed major changes to the form and shape of my Big Empty. A sea once filled the valley and fossils of its creatures now rest on the top of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. With changes like that all around me, how could I expect to remain the same?
I’m alone a lot, mostly by choice. I have friends I value very much, but less need than some other people for social contact. The Internet — this blog and Facebook — are pretty good at supplying me a lot of what I need. I like writing and I imagine in a perfect world I’d write and people would write back, but… I’m a legit introvert and too much, too concentrated, social interaction and I’m exhausted.
But I need some and, even for me, this isolation thing is a little difficult. I miss the occasional adventures I have with my friends/neighbors — Elizabeth and Karen. I miss Lois’ visits from the Springs and the chance to go up there myself, or to Denver to see other friends. I miss talking to the kids and letting them “walk” the dogs. I even miss random chats at the supermarket, sometimes with strangers, sometimes running into people I know. However, I realized that what I DO get now, what I can GIVE right now, has an intensity and authenticity borne of our mutual knowledge that we’re all in a fucked up situation. Great article here in The Washington Post.
Today Teddy and I headed out to the Big Empty to practice Extreme Social Distancing. On our way, we passed the kids who came running to the fence. I stopped Bella.
“What are you guys doing?”
“I was playing. Where are you going?” asked the little boy.
“Out to the Refuge to see if there are any birds.”
“Can you come out of the car so we can see Teddy?” asked the little girl.
“I can’t. Not until this stupid virus is over.”
Their faces fell but they understood, and nodded. “I miss you guys a lot and I love you a lot,” I said.
“Us too,” they said, in unison.
When Teddy and I arrived at the Refuge it appeared to be empty except for, in the distance, trucks belonging to the wildlife guys/young women. The cranes were very active. I think they are preparing to head north soon because there is more flying high in their crane vertices. I watched several of these moments. I sat down on a rock for a while to watch them take off, rise, and circle into the breeze of a pure blue sky, soaring, higher, higher, higher.
When they stopped, I got up, turned around and found they’d left a gift for me.
I haven’t picked up a feather for years. Long ago, I picked up every feather, loving, especially, to find hawk feathers. I adorned the inside of my truck, turning it into a mobile medicine bundle in which I burned white sage. But today I brought home the gift from the cranes. It’s a kind of company. ❤
Bear and I went to check out the crowds at the Wildlife Refuge. The Crane Tourists are still flocking to the Big Empty in their SUVs, one from out of state, but not by much. New Mexico. I noticed an elderly man walking on the little path through the small wetlands designed as a hiking trail to observe small birds. He shuffled slowly along and my heart went out to him. “Good on you,” I thought. “It’s going to take you a while to get around that, but you’re going to love it.” Later he drove by, a huge smile on his face, waving at me. Waves mean a lot right now.
It’s a good time to look for small birds. The Redwing Blackbirds are back with their squeaking screen door calls. Lots of Mountain Bluebirds. Bear and I stopped to watch the bluebirds hunt many times. They hovered over the grass like tiny hawks, then dove.
It seemed to me that there were more cranes than there have been or maybe it was only that the air was mostly calm which really helps them find food. They were in several new spots, not that far from the road — though far from my phone camera.
The changing light over the Sangre de Cristos stopped me in my tracks more than once. Bear was cool with that because she thinks I caught a scent and she begins scanning the ground with her nose. When she finds nothing there, she just leans against me and waits until I’ve savored to my heart’s content. Stopping to watch the light over the mountains also revealed the beautiful sounds of a wind-free day in the Big Empty. For a long while no Crane Tourists passed and I listened to the symphony of cranes, geese, red-winged blackbirds, an occasional blue bird call, the meadow-larks and, in the distance, the braying of a donkey.
On the way to the Refuge I passed a small farm. In the yard was a livestock guardian dog sleeping, one eye open. He was working. There was also a couple of very tiny calves. I love that so much. I respect and honor those dogs so much. From living with one, I understand something about their patient, optimistic dedication to their job and their true wish to do well. I wanted to take a photo on my way back, but when I reached the house, there was a kid on a four-wheel, a kid about 8 years old, wanting to cross the street. I waved and he waved back. I drove slowly by, and looked over at the dog. In the hour since I’d passed, there had been another calf, black and white, shaky legs. I thought about life (since I do that a LOT) and how some of the most wondrous things are like that, a momentary flicker of unself-conscious, unadorned beauty.
Mohammed’s radio had no messages for me on my way home today, so I’ll give you this beautiful song that makes my heart sing.
The mountains in the featured photo are the Sangre de Cristos. The whole time we were out, storms moved over and away from them. Wow.
Bear and I headed out yesterday afternoon once the wind whipped up (god forbid we go when the wind ISN’T blowing!) to the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge for our semi-daily (Teddy gets his turn on other days) constitutional and to evaluate the condition of the surrounding mountains. It’s been a week since the Crane Festival and, though it was Sunday, I expected fewer people. Plus, you know, virus…
I was wrong. NOTHING scares away the Crane Tourist. There were easily a half-a-dozen cars.
Bear and I have kind of figured out a route for us when there are people there. We take a little path made for walkers — 1/2 mile through scrub along a little wetlands. In this spot a couple of weeks ago I heard meadowlarks. Because of the wind, most little birds are hunkered down, so it was quiet in there yesterday.
Then, I caught sight of a raptor and stopped to watch a red tail hawk battle the wind. Even when they are doing that, they seem to be having a good time. He was flying into the wind, his wings pulled. He flew over us then (hope hope hope) and went on. “Nothing there, that selfish human has her dog leashed.” We emerged at the other end of the pathway to see a young couple picnicking by their flat tire. They waved. They were not your typical Crane Tourist though they did have a Subaru. Subaru is the car of choice for Crane Tourists.
At this point, the cranes are hanging out by a pond about 1/2 mile from the refuge entrance. Cars passed Bear and me — we always step off the dirt road and turn to face the cars. We wave, passengers and drivers wave. They drive on to where they see the other cars parked and we keep walking.
The wind was blowing from the south, hard, and obscured the sound of the cranes. I know there are thousands in that field around the pond. We get closer to the parked cars (a crowd, four) and I see the Crane Tourists with their binoculars and long camera lenses. I can imagine the wonderment on their faces as they watch the cranes dance. I love it.
I’m walking further and faster, but it still hurts. I try to extend my reach without causing myself pain. I’m at the point where I can walk two miles without pain, or much pain. I have a very high pain threshold, and I’m sure it’s why I have sustained so many injuries over the years. My body can yell at me, “WTF???? I’m WARNING you!!” and I just say, “Huh?” and keep going. I’m trying to be smarter. I need this vehicle for the foreseeable future and a future without walking? That may happen. I don’t know. But not NOW.
We reached our turning-around point and, though I want to keep going, I don’t.
I saw a man walking toward me. NO one walks here except me. How strange is this? He was another Baby Boomer (Crane Tourists tend to be Baby Boomers). He was a little shy of Bear, but they made friends and we chatted through the wind at a distance of 6 feet. He and his wife live in Boulder. He said that it’s expensive but there’s good hiking and good yoga. He said he liked it down here and he listed off all the birds he and his wife have seen at the Refuge and at Homelake. We talked about the natural beauty of Colorado and how our job is to fight for it and to enjoy it.
At one point hundreds of cranes took flight in the distance. The guy from Boulder openly expressed his delight, “That’s it! That’s what we’re here for!” meaning why he and his wife had driven down from Boulder. That expression of delight is pretty much the point of the whole thing, life, the universe and everything. Crane Tourists.
“Look for an eagle,” I said. The cranes’ mass flight which thrills us so much is usually a response to a predator nearby, most often an eagle hoping for an easy meal. Sure enough, there it was, flying off toward the south, disappointed, hungry.
Bear and I continued on our way, watching the light changing over the San Juans, cloud shadows moving over the greening chamisa. I saw two killdeer — my first. They’re lovely.
Bear and I punched out, another shift as the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge Welcoming Committee behind us.
When I got into Bella and turned on the radio, it played this song. It seemed to describe my life perfectly. I mean, seriously? Who ever knows? I thanked the fates, again, that the wind blew me here, to Heaven. ❤
Yesterday with Bear at the Wildlife Refuge I had the opportunity to speak to an older couple who’d decided to wander a little trail. The head collar on Bear looks to the uninitiated like a muzzle. They hesitated. “Is she friendly?”
“Very friendly. She loves people.” The man had a walking stick, the woman stayed behind him. Bear sat. At the right moment Bear walked calmly to the man who instantly fell in love with her. We talked dogs, dog breeds and family. They were from Texas and, I later saw, had a sticker on their car that indicated to me their politics. It’s usually impossible to know where Crane Tourists are from. They tend to drive large, clean SUVs with Colorado plates. I’m sure a lot of them are rented in Denver.
“What beautiful eyes!” said the man. “Look at them, honey.”
Then we talked about the Bernese dog. Their son had had one, and it had reached the end of its life at 6.
“They don’t live long,” I said. “And Bernese are such wonderful dogs. None of these giant breed dogs have long lives.”
“Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it. About what’s really important,” said the man scratching Bear’s ears. There is nothing like the Big Empty and its spectacular sky to make people philosophical.
It was a gorgeous March day, not warm, not cold and, strangely enough, not windy (???). Clouds floated above, enough to keep the light soft and the trail shaded, saving everyone from the powerful sunshine of the San Luis Valley. Lucky for all of these people who’d come to see the cranes.
At one spot, a small group of cranes was gathered around a pond about fifty feet from the dirt road. A clutch of SUVs had parked, and people were out with long-lenses and binoculars. Bear and I stayed back because she’d want to meet everyone and we’d gone most of our distance. A few cars passed us; drivers waved. One car had stickers that clearly delineated the politics of the people in the car. “Coexist” “Sanders for President.” I watched them pull over behind the Texans. The tall Texan with the walking stick pointed out the cranes. The driver of the “Coexist” car patted him on the shoulder in thanks. I heard laughter.
Just then a big SUV passed with Alaska plates and I wondered, “Why would you drive all the way here for what you have at home?” But as they were retired people, it occurred to me that maybe they’d wintered in Texas, as my Montana relatives had done, and were following the cranes north.
Bear and I turned around. She walked leaning against me, my hand on her shoulders until a magpie caught her eye. She stopped. She watches birds. She regarded him, perched on a three-foot tall low willow tree and the magpie regarded her in return. As I waited, I thought that maybe all we need to bring the people in this country together are Sandhill Cranes, mountains, a beautiful day and a blue-eyed, big white dog.
To make up for her disappointment in not getting any snow, I took Bear out to the Wildlife Refuge. The Sandhill Cranes are coming back. The BLM fills ponds for the cranes since the ancient aquifer they used to rely on (by used to I mean for hundreds of thousands of years) is now used for farming. So far they’ve only filled one pond and I don’t know where or which or???
It really didn’t matter to me. While it’s NOT true that if you’ve seen one crane you’ve seen them all, it IS true that if you’ve photographed several hundred you’ve photographed them all. After five Crane Festivals, Sandhill Cranes are now to me something special in a way that’s not related to novelty. They are simply magical. I love them.
Usually by now I’ve heard and seen hundreds, but not this year. I don’t know why, but I’m not their boss. So, having learned there are a bunch out in the refuge where there is some open water (a-HA) we went out.
I’ve always wanted to walk there but haven’t before today. There’s a four mile driving tour. Bear and I parked by the ranger station and hit the road. It was really nice to walk on a comfortable flat surface with no mud or lumpy icy snow or puddles of ice melt that can’t soak into the frozen ground. I noticed for the first time that there are several pretty side foot paths into the rabbitbrush to experience the NON-cranes — meadowlarks, for example. I could imagine Bear, Teddy and I walking there all summer, watching for rattlesnakes, of course.
Only one car passed by as we walked. I saw five cranes and heard hundreds. Most of all, I got to enjoy the incredible vistas that made me fall in love with the San Luis Valley back in 2014. Nothing clears the mind and heals the heart like an hour in The Big Empty. Bear loved the walk. Lots of elk droppings to smell, a few patches of snow to roll in, new places to leave messages. She was happy. I know this because on our way back she pressed against me as we walked and made sure her back or her head was under my hand.
Big storm coming over the San Juans. The wind blows from the Southwest and the sky above those mountains looks airbrushed. Teddy and I take a short jaunt out to the golf course as I have plans this afternoon. Someone else has been skiing, the skater, but the tracks are fading to grass in many places and if we don’t get more snow it’s going to be curtains for that little paradise. It’ll still be a good place to walk the dogs, but the block-away skiing will be over.
Happened last year, too.
The cranes are returning to the San Luis Valley though I don’t think there is much open water yet. It’s nearing peak time for them. Facebook told me this morning in my memories that three years ago Bear and I saw them — and their tracks — on a walk. The tracks are as big as my hand. I’ve seen a few cranes grazing in a field on my drives to Alamosa for provisions.
I love the Sandhill Cranes. Last spring, the final crane experience Bear and I had was out in the Big Empty. A huge flock was grazing out of our sight behind a farm house. I caught sight of a redtail hawk flying in that direction, flying pretty low. It wasn’t long before I heard the chaos and the cranes took flight, heading away from the hawk and away from me. Among the crane’s major predators are large raptors, golden and bald eagles, but a hawk can do some damage, too. I haven’t heard any yet but I think that will happen soon. My house is under one of their “routes.”
One thing I’ve learned from being older and less pressured by life in the daily sense (godnose the ultimate deadline is closer) is that when I give something time, I’ll reach a better understanding of it. I imagine some people get that when they’re young, but I didn’t. I often thought I understood something, but I didn’t, really. I wanted answers to my questions NOW and never thought that maybe the other person didn’t have answers at that point. It never occurred to me that they might have been as confused and uncertain as I was. This was a problem especially in relationships — love relationships and work.
I also remember feeling all the time that I had to get somewhere. I had no idea where that somewhere was, or what. I still don’t know. I wonder what inspired that constant feeling of pressure. I remember closing doors arbitrarily just to have some certainty, only to learn that the door was never closed and the room into which it led was exactly where I needed to go. That’s a pretty good summary of the story between the man in my life (7000 miles away) and me. Strong-willed and scared, both of us slammed the door over and over again only to discover we live in the same room.
It’s taken me a year to understand and accept that.
When I was younger I thought confusion and uncertainty were temporary states, and I’d solve whatever was keeping me awake and move on to a life that was clear and comfortable. But now I know. Transition after transition (most of which I could not control or even make decisions about) has shown me that confusion and uncertainty are life.
Running on all those trails — where I went often to get some relief from confusion and uncertainty — I was able, at least to bide some time. I didn’t realize that I was learning how nature bides its time. It knows that it is in the power of the sun, and where that flaming ball sits in relation to our planet determines what nature does. On top of that? So many variables — Earth’s movement, the Gulf Stream, on and on and on…humans.
This time last year, my Scarlet Emperor beans were 7 feet tall, blooming and making beans. This year they’re barely 14 inches. This time last year, the crabapple trees by City Hall were laden with fruits for jelly-making. This year, there is nary an apple. BUT last year farmers and ranchers had to go outside the valley to buy hay. This year they will get three cuttings.
None of this is negotiable. My visit to my yard just now, dog inspired, intersected with the flight of a large formation of Sandhill Cranes. Early? Maybe but they have had nearly 2 million years to get in tune with the celestial imperative. I think they know better than I will ever know what time it is.