Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska Mountaineer Books (September, 2011). Below is the book’s prologue. Hit the red play button above to hear cranes. You can order from Amazon or Mountaineers (or, better yet, ask your local bookstore to stock a few copies.)
Advanced Praise for Faith of Cranes
“Faith of Cranes is a love song to the beauty and worth of the lives we are able to lead in the world just as it is, troubled though it be. Lentfer’s storytelling achieves its joys and universality not via grand summations but via grounded self-giving, familial intimacy, funny friendships, attentive griefs, and full-bodied immersion in the Alaskan rainforest. The writing is honest, intensely lived, and overflowing with heart: broken, mended, and whole.”
—David James Duncan, author of The Brothers K and God Laughs & Plays
“Faith of Cranes is a truly beautiful book, as purely Alaskan as nagoonberries and venison jerky. Exquisitely written—authentic, wise, funny, quirky, honest, heartbreaking—it reveals a man whose soul is as wild as the far north country where his life is anchored.”
—Richard Nelson, author of The Island Within
“Hank Lentfer’s Faith of Cranes is the best kind of memoir—one that illuminates a particular life in a particular place but extends well beyond the personal to explore big issues about family, community, and how we can live with gratitude and hope. Lentfer, a major new voice not just in Alaska writing but in literary nonfiction and philosophy of place, is the storyteller you would want at your campfire. You will never see a migrating crane—or any other bird—in quite the same way again.”
—Nancy Lord, former Alaska Writer Laureate, author of Beluga Days and Early Warming
“How do we summon the faith, maybe the courage, to move toward a future in a world so grievously threatened? Faith of Cranes is Hank Lentfer’s answer. Authentic and essential, heart-wrenching yet luminous with hope, Lentfer writes in the tradition of America’s best naturalist–philosophers like Sigurd Olsen and Terry Tempest Williams. His story of wild Alaska is one-of-a-kind—courageous, funny, wise, and beautiful.”
— Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Pine Island Paradox and Wild Comfort
“Read Faith of Cranes for the descriptions of nature, surely, but read it also for the eloquent love story, for the celebration of fatherhood, for the portraits of mentors, and for the meditations on the ethics of eating our fellow beings. In these pages, you can witness one man’s discovery of the right place, the right partner, and the right path.”
— Scott Russell Sanders, author of A Conservationist Manifesto
Prologue – Cranes and Cottonwood
Cranes flew into my life one early evening in late September. I was nailing the last board onto the roof of my house. Cottonwood leaves, yellow and dry, dropped onto the wood while I worked. The flock poured in from the northwest and passed so close the whistle of wind through feathers mixed with their throaty calls. I teetered on the steep roof, hammer dangling from my hand, staring at the birds. I’d heard cranes before but not from the top of my own home, not from the place I intended to spend the rest of my life.
I was twenty-five when I sank that last nail, gathered my tools, and climbed down the ladder. Every year since, without fail, when the cottonwood leaves color and curl, those ancient birds flood the sky over our home. They drift in waves, tired after a long day’s flight, gray wings set against the sunset. Touching down, they flap hard to slow the pull of gravity, their stick-thin legs outstretched to meet the earth. From the porch, if the winds are still, I can hear the birds chattering through the night.
They might stay for a day, a week, waiting for fair winds and rising thermals. When the time is right, a single crane crouches and leaps to the air, followed by another, and another, and then a thousand more. They flap and glide in a growing spiral, calling as if lifted by their own sound. Lying on my back alongside our garden, I stare into a whirlpool of wings. At the thermal’s top, the cranes spill out in a long, fluid skein, the current of a collective compass. Not until the birds slip from view, pulling the last voice with them, do I get up, brush the grass from my shirt, and try to remember what I was doing with my day.
Our home sits at the forested edge of a wide meadow about halfway between the cranes’ Arctic nests and their California wintering grounds. Having built our little house ourselves, my wife and I view the crude construction with great affection. We carry our water in buckets and get the morning weather report on the way to the outhouse. Anya and I hammered our house together with nails and the naive belief that by staying put we could avoid the urbanization of America–could live, somehow, in peaceful isolation. When I fell in love with cranes, I had no idea they would lead me to the very thing I was trying to escape.
I was born here in Alaska, raised through the fat years of timber and oil, when entire watersheds were cut and shipped to Japan and the long pipeline transformed the last frontier into the next opportunity. A visiting Vermont friend once told me, “You can stay and preside over the destruction of Alaska. I’d rather return home and help with the restoration of the Northeast.” He’s got a point. No one from Vermont is pounding the podium chanting, “Drill, baby, drill!”
I left Alaska for a few years to study ecology at a small university in Washington. My ornithology professor loved birds as much as any human can love another creature. Frustrated with the university’s minivans, Steve spent his own money on a yellow school bus so he could take the whole class to his favorite places. He drove with binoculars pinned to his eyes. At the sight of a horned grebe in a slough or hawk owl on a branch, he’d slam on the brakes, swing open the doors, and we’d all tumble out to gawk. His enthusiasm for the feathered was infectious. So was his despair.
In lecture hall one day, we started talking about the notion of progress. What is linear? Repetitive? Guided by evolution? God? Greed? Steve listened quietly to his students trying to sound scholarly. In a pause in the banter he said, “Progress is the inevitable diminution of beauty over time.” Steve was a big man, stiff and gray with age. He made the pronouncement, took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, passed a lingering gaze over his students, then turned and clomped out the emergency exit. There was an hour of class time left, so we hung out for a bit. When it was obvious he was not coming back, we gathered up our books and left.
Inevitable diminution of beauty over time. Four years of college and this is the one line I can quote verbatim. Steve not only delivered the verdict with some dramatic flair but lived beneath its weight. We could hear it in his voice as he talked of the year Interstate-5 was built across the wetlands where he’d hunted as a boy. We could see it in the way he drank too much beer, slurring and stumbling at class potlucks. We could sense it in the way a rhapsody about the marvels of migration would suddenly flip into a rant about the stupidity of politicians. We’d feel it when a lab period dedicated to the architecture of a hummingbird’s nest would spiral into curses against the engineers of dikes and dams.
If my professor was right (and I believed he was), if the beauty of the world was to be eclipsed by chainsaws and chain stores, if the gears of the industrial revolution remained hell-bent on processing the gorgeous into the useful, then having a child made no sense. The diminution of beauty over time assumes the world’s beauty is finite, assumes a future of darkness. In such a world, the greatest act of parental love is not to become a parent at all.
Ten million years ago, a roiling cloud of volcanic ash obliterated the sun. It fell fast, like an avalanche of black snow, suffocating the animals of the Great Plains beneath ten feet of abrasive powder. Today, at an excavation site in Nebraska, teams of graduate students slowly scrape and sweep through the black earth surrounding an ancient watering hole. The world emerging beneath their tools looks more like the African savanna than the farm country of the Midwest. The students have uncovered an entire herd of hippos gathered for a drink. Around the outskirts of the oasis are the remains of rhinos; three-toed horses; deer-like animals with twisting, forward-leaning horns; and long-necked camels larger than present- day giraffes. The fine ash yields the delicate details of bones and even the impressions of feathers. Of all the bizarre critters rising from that ash only the graceful skeleton of the sandhill crane looks familiar to our modern-day eyes.
Since that blast, cranes have made millions of migrations over a changing continent. Most of the species that survived the volcano were later killed by a prolonged drought that shuffled the composition of North American fauna. The cranes watched the demise of rhinos, camels, and hippos. They watched trans-American forests and woodlands give way to grassland prairie. They saw glaciers stretch from coast to coast, retreat and return, again and again. They witnessed the arrival and extinction of wooly mammoths and short-faced bears, saber-toothed tigers and giant sloths. Crane calls greeted the first humans spreading south down the continent from Beringia. In recent decades, the oldest species of bird on the planet has watched the lights of cities scatter across the country like embers from a great fire.
In all the years living beneath the spectacle of sandhills, I never followed them south. I did not want to see what I knew I’d find in California. Not until a new life began to stir within the ocean of Anya’s belly did I buy a ticket. I wanted my child to grow up beneath the rhythm of cranes, wanted her heart to swell, like mine, with the passing of each raucous flock. But I worried about teaching my kid to love something I could not protect. I needed to know, before my child was born, whether she might grow to know a silent sky.
So I went to the Central Valley and saw cranes picking through rows of corn being converted to rows of condos. After surviving asteroids, volcanoes, and continental glaciations, cranes will not likely survive the human transformation of the planet. We deny the data and pump out CO2 without pause. We cling to the suicidal notion of perpetual progress. In this country alone, over 3.2 million acres a year are lost to urban sprawl. That’s 362 acres each hour. Species are going extinct every day. My professor was right: beauty is, indeed, bleeding bit by bit from this world. My daughter may well live to know a silent sky.
But this is more than a story of loss. It is the story of how I came to believe my professor was also wrong; a story of how cranes, deer, and one little black-haired, blue-eyed girl taught me that running from loss is a race you can win only by standing still; a story of how one man, blinded to present beauty by the fear of an ugly future, regained his sight.