Laura Pritchett opinion featured image

Nuclear forces on high alert. Two million evacuees. Photos of bloody children and haunted eyes. The potential for escalation. The knowledge that humans have the weaponry to end all life, shatter this amazing, spinning blue ball, and that our economies and power structures and governments and egos have put those weapons into the hands of a few.

There seems to be very little the average good people of any country can really do. 

Yeah, the world has turned dark again.

Laura Pritchett

As Wendell Berry famously put it, there is peace found in wild things. And the best life advice I know comes from another poet, Jack Gilbert: “We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of the world.”

For me, there’s real peace and delight to be found in the sandhill cranes passing through Colorado right now. Not because they sound like the purring toads, or because their landing looks like a soft-moving tornado, or because their mating dance is just . . . charming as all get-out. 

It’s not even the sheer number, which astonishes, group after group circling and circling, then lowering, settling into sunlit water. There are, after all, nearly a half million of them chatter-purring overhead—80% of the world’s cranes are now arriving in nearby Nebraska and within our state. No, the reason they bring me peace is their ancientness. They have seen it all, they have borne witness. They continue on, despite. 

Sandhill cranes are considered to be the oldest known bird species, with fossils dating back at least two million years; a crane fossil thought to be a close relative of our modern friends, found in Nebraska, dates back 10 million years.

It’s something about this final point—the fact they’re so ancient—that brings me perspective and stillness. In a universe thought to be 14 billion years old, and with a bird that has been around so very long, watching them inspires me to keep my short life in perspective, helps me clarify the course I want to take, what my landing spots might be, how best to use my wild and precious life (to quote another poet, Mary Oliver). 


The cranes welcome the larger questions: 

Have I given my life enough thought, which requires time? Have I made the right decisions, which requires courage? 

Have I done what I can to advocate for peace—indeed, what else should I do?

Have I done enough so that I can die in peace, if that’s what happens next?

These are the frank and beautiful lessons of the cranes. 

Sandhill cranes are truly a sight to behold. But the thing is, they’re not that easy to see. Although they fly in large groups of up to a hundred, they are often so high overhead that the best way to see them is to first hear them. It helps to know when to listen, which is most often in the afternoons when warm air forms thermal columns and the birds soar, and what to listen for, which is a sound that is hard to describe, but once identified, impossible to forget. 

Once you’ve heard the cranes, you will always hear the cranes.

And right now, they’re in all four directions—providing a compass of sorts on where to look. As they pass over us, heading north from their winter grounds in Arizona and New Mexico, they congregate all around Colorado and nearby states, and, as with most crane appreciators, I have my favorite spots: 

To my west, the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, particularly The Carpenter Ranch, owned by the Nature Conservancy, is well-known as a birdwatcher’s paradise.  

To my east, the Rowe Audubon Nature Sanctuary is where I’ve seen the most birds, the noise nearly deafening. Just stopping along the Platte River and fields near Kearney, Nebraska, works too. 

To the south, cranes gather near Alamosa and the Great Sand Dunes and throughout the San Luis Valley. 

To the north, cranes nest in the greater Yellowstone area. 

I am forever encouraging friends: Go see the cranes! Make an effort to see the cranes! And it’s not just because they’re cool birds, though they are. Something about trekking to go see them is truly a humbling activity. Like stargazing, it reminds us how small our blip in time is, and yet, simultaneously, reminds us to use that blip well. 

By listening for them, and to them, and seeking them, I realize how much I don’t know. Both about cranes specifically and my life generally. My life: Well, I’m figuring that out. But as far as cranes, I’ll share my favorite tidbits of learning: 

I knew they were large, a seven-foot wingspread, but I did not know that their feathers have a reddish-brown color, from preening with beaks covered with iron rich mud, the iron oxidizing and blending with their feathers. 

I knew they mated for life, but I had not fully appreciated their spectacular courtship dance, where they leap high in the air, with their bills skyward and necks arched over their backs. 

I knew their sound was the most unique thing I’d ever heard, but I didn’t know they had at least 18 vocalizations, and that their rolling, trumpeting sound is a product of anatomy; basically, their long tracheas coil into the sternum, which creates a lower pitch and harmonics. 

I did not know until recently that Colorado is one of only five states that breaks the “500 mark”—home to more than 500 bird species—and that we are the only non-border state that does so. 

I knew they were old, but didn’t realize how old.

I don’t know quite how to explain it, exactly, but something about the sandhill cranes inspires real reflection. Brings comfort. There is peace in wild things, and perhaps the wildest and oldest thing is these cranes. Our time here is so limited, and in watching them, perhaps we’ll feel the urge to witness sorrow, to acknowledge pain, to work for change. Perhaps the cranes will encourage us to pause, to look at the compass of our lives, help us clarify the directions in which we’ve come, and where we want to go. Offer advice on where next this planet and her people should land. 

Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at

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