Cranes and home

Sandhill cranes flying over a marsh, Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado

Last weekend, I taught a creative writing workshop at the Monte Vista Crane Festival, an annual celebration of the return of some 20,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes to the San Luis Valley.

After we settled in around the table in the meeting room at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, I asked each of the 16 attendees why they had signed up for the workshop. Their answers ranged from “I love nature and want to learn how to articulate that without sounding cliched” to “I’m not a writer but I love to read.”

As I listened to them, I thought about how I would answer my own question. As is so often true when I teach, I learned at least as much as my students.

Sandhill cranes gathering over Blanca Peak, San Luis Valley, Colorado

Why had I driven to the San Luis Valley on the night before a snowstorm was predicted to arrive, in order to donate my time to teach a creative writing workshop?

The simple answer is to support the Crane Festival, an example of a community loving its environment and sharing it (economic development of the sort that spreads the “wealth,” that is the cranes and the wonder of their time in the valley, without consuming it).

That’s not all of it though.

It was an excuse to haul myself out of my twin ruts of writing and carpentry and witness the spectacle of thousands of sandhill cranes on “spring break” in their long migration, feeding and loafing, dancing as pairs court each other anew, and calling in those low, throaty voices.

When I hear the purring, rhythmic call of sandhill cranes, whether in the air overhead or issuing from hundreds of throats in a marsh, I know I am home. The sound is as elemental as the earth itself breathing, and as basic to my place on earth as the fragrance of sagebrush, turpentine-sweet, after a summer rain.

Slithering slowly down Poncha Pass last weekend in a  snowstorm.

Although I was born and raised in the Midwest, I belong here, where the Rocky Mountains spear up against skies so clear and intensely blue we habitually squint, where the shrub desert spreads out, dust-dry, to the far horizon. Where spring sounds like sandhill cranes, ravens call in winter dawns so cold your breath freezes in the air, where summers sparkle with wildflowers and buzz with hummingbirds, and fall smells like snow clinging to golden aspen leaves. (And late winter storms sometimes make my road-trips more exciting than I’d like.)

In the end,love is why I drove to Monte Vista to teach, and why I write: Because I love this life and the community it weaves on Earth. This watery blue and green planet and all its inhabitants–huge to microscopic; four-legged, eight-legged, rooted, finned, winged, wriggling or ciliate–have my heart.

My attachment to this place and to life in all its breathtaking diversity is an essential part of who I am, an expression of my elemental terraphilia, our species’ innate love of this planet and its communities of lives.

The San Luis Valley, text by Susan J. Tweit, photographs by Glenn Oakley

As I wrote in The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes, my love song to this place with photographer Glenn Oakley,

Perhaps what allows a newcomer to belong to the valley is the same gift that allows humanity to belong to this rare blue planet: an ability to love its miraculous as well as its mundane. This paradoxical desert of water and sand, a place that dances in the wind and echoes with the throaty calls of sandhill cranes, reminds me of what it is to love with a whole heart, to be at home, no matter who I am, where I was born, or how long I will stay.

In ten days, I’ll be back in the Valley, this time leading a group of writers in a four-day Write & Retreat workshop, with a field trip to see and hear the cranes, as well as time to soak, think, write and rediscover the calling of heart and spirit.


Filmmaker, writer and birder June Inuzuka attended my Crane Fest workshop and was kind enough to give me a shout-out on her blog. A bow in thanks to you, June.