Peter Matthiessen
The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes

from the publisher:
Cranes are ubiquitous in the earliest legends of the world's peoples, where they often figure as sentinels of heaven and omens of longevity and good fortune. For their great beauty and imposing size -- they are the largest of all flying birds on earth -- they are held near-sacred in many lands. Their broad wilderness habitat requirements make them "umbrella species"; protecting them ensures that other creatures and the earth and water of the ecosystem are also protected. In addition, the enormous spans of cranes' migrations have encouraged international conservation efforts.

In The Birds of Heaven, Peter Matthiessen chronicles his many journeys in search of the world's fifteen species of cranes. From the vast taiga of Siberia's Amur basin and the Mongolian steppe, breeding grounds for the glorious red-crowned and white-naped cranes, his travels take him to India, Bhutan, China, Japan, and Korea, then on to Australia, Africa, and western Europe (where the native crane is being encouraged to return), and finally to Wisconsin, Nebraska, the Gulf Coast, and Florida, where ingenious efforts are under way to establish a nonmigratory population of the rare whooping crane. He is accompanied by erudite and passionate ornithologists and "craniacs," along with many fascinating regional people, from Mongolian nomads to Gujarati nawabs. Through their eyes as well as his own, he portrays the astonishingly tenacious cranes' struggles to survive in a rapidly developing world in which man is leaving less and less place for other creatures. He also captures the deep loss to humankind should these majestic creatures -- their majesty illuminated by Robert Bateman's eloquent renderings -- be permitted to disappear.

Peter Matthiessen is a novelist, life-long naturalist, environmental activist, and wilderness traveler whose nonfiction includes The Tree Where Man Was Born, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and The Snow Leopard, which won it. Among his honors are the Gold Medal in Natural History from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences; the Heinz, John Hay, and Society of Conservation Biology awards; and the John Burroughs and Christopher medals. His fiction includes At Play in the Fields of the Lord (also an NBA nominee), Far Tortuga, and the powerful Watson trilogy that begins with Killing Mister Watson (the Ambassador Award) and culminates in Bone by Bone (Southern Book Critics Circle Award). He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; he is also a 1991 Laureate of the Global Honor Roll of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Robert Bateman is a world-renowned artist, naturalist, and environmental spokesman. His paintings and drawings of wild creatures hang in many art museums, and he has numerous books to his credit. His honors include the Order of Canada, nine doctorates, and the Rachel Carson Award.

"Matthiessen . . . is our greatest modern nature writer in the lyrical tradition." --The New York Times Book Review

"An original and powerful artist . . . who has produced as distinguished a body of work as any writer of our time . . . He has immeasurably enlarged our consciousness." --William Styron

"The Body of his enormous work, and its integrity and range, continues to amaze me. His work altogether is one of the towering literary achievements of his generation." --W.S. Merwin

"There is, to my mind, no writing life more vital and of greater distinction in the second half of our century." --Howard Norman

"Peter Matthiessen has a strong claim to being the most distinguished all-around writer of our postwar years." --Frederick Turner

The following is an excerpt from the book The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes by Peter Matthiessen.


Black Dragon River

The immortal cranes call, their cries sound from afar, their thoughts circle upward into distant skies. Below, on the autumn rivers, stands a man, above him the bright moon. The man wanders aimless, trailing after the endless Milky Way. The wind blows past him. I, too, thinks the man, would like to be utterly free.

--Jiang Yi Ning

On a rare clear morning -- the first day of summer 1992 -- flying across the Bering Strait from the Yukon delta toward the Diomede Islands and the Chukotskiy Peninsula of Siberia, I imagine the gray sun-silvered strait as seen from on high by a migrating crane, more particularly, by the golden eye of the Crane from the East, as the lesser sandhill crane of North America is known to traditional peoples on its westernmost breeding territory in Siberia. The sandhill commonly travels a mile above the earth and can soar higher, to at least twenty thousand feet -- not astonishing when one considers that the Eurasian and demoiselle cranes ascend to three miles above sea level traversing the Himalaya in their north and south migrations between Siberia and the Indian subcontinent.

That cranes may journey at such altitudes, disappearing from the sight of earthbound mortals, may account for their near-sacred place in the earliest legends of the world as messengers and harbingers of highest heaven. In Cree Indian legend, Crane carries Rabbit to the moon. Aesop extols the crane's singular ability "to rise above the clouds into endless space, and survey the wonders of the heavens, as well as of the earth beneath, with its seas, lakes, and rivers, as far as the eye can reach," and Homer and Aristotle comment on great crane migrations. Every land where they appear has tales and myths about the cranes, which since ancient times have represented longevity and good fortune, harmony and fidelity. Heaven-bound ancients are commonly depicted riding on a crane, or assuming the crane's majestic form for their arrival in the clouds of immortality.

The larger cranes, over five feet tall, with broad strong wings eight feet in span, appear well capable of bearing aloft a wispy old-time sage. The cranes are the greatest of the flying birds and, to my mind, the most stirring, not less so because the horn notes of their voices, like clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth. Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species -- and ours, too, though we learn it very late -- must ultimately depend for survival.

In the large taxonomic order known as Gruiformes, the odd and elastic suborder Grues includes cranes and their closest relatives, the New World limpkins and trumpeters, and also the cosmopolitan jacanas, rails, gallinules, and coots; it does not include the smaller storks and herons with which they were traditionally grouped on the basis of common wading habits and similarities of rostra, bills, and feet. In 1735 Carl von Linné, or Linnaeus, in his Systema Naturae named the Eurasian or common crane Ardea grus or "crane heron," and in the nineteenth century Audubon would portray a heron as the "little blue crane." Herons were commonly called cranes in Ireland, Scotland, and South America, where no cranes occur, and also in Australia (where the true crane was known, oddly, as "the native companion" because of its close association with the Aborigines). Even in flight and at a distance, cranes look nothing like herons, since cranes fly with neck outstretched rather than curved back onto the shoulders, while storks in flight display broad tails, which all cranes lack. (Crane tails are small and very short, a deficiency obscured by long loose feathers of the inner wing -- the tertials, highly modified to form erect, handsome "bustles" or long trailing plumes when the bird folds its wings upon alighting. Otherwise this bird's extremities -- bill, neck, legs, and toes -- are unusually long.) Furthermore, crane voices with their wild, rolling r are far more musical than the strangled squawks of storks and herons.

Cranes stand straight and erect with bodies parallel to the ground in the manner of ostriches. The hind toe or hallux, elevated like a cockspur, is vestigial in all but the two crowned cranes of the genus Balearica, whose longer hind toe may serve for balance in the perching habit, one of several that distinguish the "primitive" Balearica from modern or "typical" cranes of the genus Grus -- primitive in the sense that in its anatomy and behavior, Balearica is closer to the ancestral form. Another is the fully feathered head, which crowned cranes share with the demoiselle and blue cranes of the genus Anthropoides. In all other cranes, the head is ornamented with a bare area of rough red comb or skin -- bright crimson when the blood is up during the breeding season -- located somewhere on the crown in most of the migratory northern cranes and in varying areas of the face and upper neck in the mostly nonmigratory southern species. (Among the latter, the sarus, brolga, and wattled cranes are additionally adorned with bald greenish brows.) Though the female tends to be smaller, the sexes of all cranes are otherwise indistinguishable when not interacting in pair bonding, courtship, and mating.

The brown coast of Alaska, falling away in the bright mists, gives way to rotted pack ice and the rough gray shallow seas of the vanished land bridge between continents, fifty miles across. Cold sea air over the North Pacific numbs the bright red skin on the sandhill's crown; the long stiff wings creak on the wind. "The flight of cranes, the way they form letters" was noted by the Roman poet Hyginus, among other early observers. Like wild geese, cranes often travel in V formation, presumably having learned -- after millions of miles and long millenniums of buffeting by the great winds -- the aerodynamic limits of formations in the shape of B or H.

The Arctic distances flown at high altitudes by these dauntless creatures humble the seat-bound traveler on Air Alaska. Peering outward from my plastic aerie over the firmament of wind and light, mightily stirred by the unmarred emptiness of land and sea beneath, I could know with Goethe's Faust how "it is inborn in every man that his feeling should press upward and forward" when "over precipitous fir-clad heights the eagle floats with wings outspread, or over flatlands, over seas, the crane sweeps onward toward its home" -- in German, Heimgang or "home going," the return to the lost paradise at the source of all man's yearnings.

Off the aircraft wing rises Nunivak Island, where thirty years ago I was a member of an expedition that captured ten burly musk-ox calves, the nucleus of a domestic hero to be raised in Fairbanks and turned over to the Inupiaq people in an effort to stabilize their economy. On Nunivak, according to my notes from that expedition, "cranes on long black-fingered wings bugled sadly across the wind" -- among the many far-flung sandhills which have brightened fine days in the field across all of North America, from Alaska to the northern Everglades.

Soon the islands known as the Diomedes -- one in the New World, one in the Old -- loom in northern mists, then Cape Dezhnev and the barrens of Chukotskly, home of the Chukot or Chukchi aborigines, kinsmen of the Inupiaq and the Aleuts. Even in late June, the mountain tundra far below looks wintry, with hard, wind-worn snow in the ravines. Following old migration instincts, the Crane from the East will descend each spring to the great eastern peninsulas of Siberia, and some will wander west along the Arctic coast approximately fifteen hundred miles to the Yana River, where their breeding range meets that of the Siberian crane.

Off Asia's north Pacific coast, the airplane turns southward. In this clear weather, one can see most of Kamchatka, that vast and all but uninhabited land of volcanoes and great bears, blue lakes, mountain meadows, swift cold streams, and hard bright coast. Extending a thousand miles north and south, with scarcely a scar or a raw scrape or glint of man, it fairly resounds with emptiness and silence, like the pristine New World continent of great mountains and rivers that astounded the early voyagers along its north Pacific coast.

Off Kamchatka's tip, the Kurile Islands march south through the Pacific haze toward the Japanese archipelago, which continues in a southwest arc approximately as long as the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. Eventually the plane descends to refuel at Magadan, on the Siberian mainland, where even in late June, the barren Dzhugdzhur Mountains to the west are patched with snow. Beyond, the spruce tundra and boreal taiga, immense beyond reckoning, extend three thou- sand miles to the Ural Mountains and European Russia, in an all but unbroken forest composed of half the conifers and one third of the hardwoods left on earth.

From Magadan the plane heads out across the Sea of Okhotsk. The Siberian coastline reappears in the sprawling delta of the Amur River, shining in braids and floodplains that stretch away under the western sun to far smudges of upland and small mountains. The Amur drainage is the great river system of eastern Siberia and northern China, draining a watershed Of 716,200 square miles on its 2,700-mile journey from eastern Mongolia to the sea. With the Ussuri (in Chinese, Wusuli), which joins it from the south, the Amur serves as the north-eastern frontier between Russia and China, all the way from Inner Mongolia to great Lake Khanka -- or Xingkai Hu -- on China's border with Primorski Krai, Russia's maritime province on the Sea of Japan.