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Crane, Water, Change

By Christine Byl

Greater Sandhill Crane at Malheur Refuge
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Rampant wildfires across the West, venomous sea snakes on California beaches—sound familiar? Rarely does a day pass without a headline focused on climate-related news. Every time I read one of these stories, my mind goes to the people living amidst it: exhausted hotshot crews in Twisp, WA, barefoot beachcombers in Oxnard, CA. Though national in distribution, every story begins in its own neighborhood.

About a year ago, the National Park Service invited me to write an essay for a web-based literary anthology focused on climate-triggered ecological changes in my own backyard: Denali National Park. Denali's sub-Arctic location means that taiga (the boreal forest) and tundra (a treeless region often with permafrost present) overlap, making it an ideal place to track changes. The Park Service supports critical scientific research in Denali all year round, noting and recording everything from sound pollution to glacier profiles. But the NPS also knows that one of the best ways to invest visitors in climate research is not through power points and charts, but through narrative. Hence, the call for essays by writers from the region. Here's how Denali introduces the anthology project on its website:

It is the official position of the National Park Service that climate change is real, and that we all share a stewardship responsibility to reduce its impact on park resources for future generations.

Mitigating the effects of climate change is the story of our time. It is accepted within the scientific community that these effects are felt more keenly in Alaska than in temperate regions of the planet. Research indicates that within park boundaries vegetation is changing, average annual temperatures are rising, wetlands are shrinking, glaciers are thinning, and permafrost is melting. While these stories reflect tremendous impact, they have not been widely or comprehensively shared.

This anthology seeks to tell larger stories of climate change in Denali as actual stories, as five accomplished local authors describe the effects of a changing climate on the lives and landscape they treasure here.

When I agreed to join the project, I was assigned the topic of wetlands. My first thought: that sounds a little dry. (I immediately recognized the irony.) I am not a biologist, and though I know a bit about the area flora, I'm no plant expert. As an alpine traveler I had first-hand experience with glaciers, and my weather geek was fascinated by temperature. Why couldn't I choose one of those angles? But wetlands were my purview, and I spent weeks mulling, trying to find the right entry into the essay. Things finally shifted into place as I watched the annual fall migration of sandhill cranes pouring over the acres I live on, their calls accompanying me from compost pile to wood shed to outhouse.

Sandhill crane calls

As always, a specific detail unlocked a larger story. Once I connected those beloved cranes to the wetlands they need to survive, I had a trail to follow, one marked by facts, senses and narrative. By the time I finished researching these incredible birds and their fragile ecosystems, and reaching to tell a story about them, I couldn't imagine having written about anything else.

The excerpt below is the first section of Crane, Water, Change, which can be found in its entirety here (complete with audio clips). You'll also find thoughtful essays by four other Alaskan writers—on mud, glaciers, sled dogs, and dozers—and an introduction by climate warrior Kathleen Dean Moore.

I hope you'll read this essay not just as a window into the faraway Subarctic, but also as a call to consider more deeply the changes in your own yards, and the bird and insect and cloud ambassadors that are asking us to listen.


Two sandhill cranes in flight
NPS photo by Tim Rains

I. Neighbors

Near the end of August, I wait for the first sound. Usually it comes from a few birds too high to see clearly. Not flocks, not yet. Gradually, it builds—the number, the sound—through early September until it crescendos in the third week with a raucous noise that vaults past beautiful. Sandhill cranes on the move are startling and epic. They remind me that wildness is not always silent.

By early October, the numbers thin, lessening until again there are just the few birds too high to see clearly: migration’s parentheses. The last cranes leave as snow comes to stay. “Hurry guys!” I cheer them on from the front porch as Arctic storms move in from the nesting grounds they’ve just left behind. “It’s getting cold. Go, go, go!

The first time I saw sandhill cranes en masse I lived further south, on Prince William Sound, and though notable flocks flowed overhead in Spring, they were so intermingled with every other noisy bird that passes through the Copper River Coastal Plain, it was hard to focus on cranes alone. Now I live just outside the town of Healy in Alaska's Interior, abutting Denali’s northern border, and sandhills pass right over the roof. In our arid, empty sky, cranes are the stars. Some mornings they fly directly above the skylight over my bed, the first living things I see when I open my eyes.

My neighborhood is knit by sounds: mosquitoes, engines, birdsong, wind. This is rural living, each of us seeking quiet privacy on our own two acres or twenty. But at the edge of taiga forest, stunted black spruce and tundra plants do not muffle the way a denser forest does, and we live amidst each other’s daily noise. Howls from the north mean Jared is hooking up the dog team. A nail gun early is Jess at her rafters, hoping to be weathered in before the first snow. Neighbor kids shout and fire BB guns too close. Approaching tires on the gravel road say truck or station wagon, local commute or tourist drive-by, trailer or dump truck or ATV. We add our voices—stopped in the middle of the road with our car doors open to talk—or short honks, or a lifted finger from the wheel in the quietest local hello.

This neighborhood is a subdivision, which makes it a home for us, but it’s also woven through with wetlands, which makes it a home for birds. Just up the road is Eight-Mile Lake, bowled in saturated muskeg, and in springtime Panguingue Creek tributaries flow loud enough to hear even over the sounds of a chainsaw and drifting Top 40 from seasonals too new to know how much we can hear.

Resident birds offer up their sounds with ours all year long: a great-horned owl pair hooting in the aspen grove, loudest in May, and the magpies, tricky ventriloquists, hollering in every voice but human. Ravens dip into the dog’s bowl and crow about the soggy kibbles they find floating there. In spring, migratory birds join the cacophony. Robins drink from puddles and sing bright orange songs, novel after winter’s limited palette hush. And cranes pour overhead in coursing Vs. “Welcome back!” I shout from the porch. Something is always communicating, somewhere.

In the fall, at the close of a busy summer not prone to standstill, the humans finally pause and talk to each other at length. An annual Harvest Party has sprung up in our neighborhood. Four years running now, it is a tradition I look forward to. The first weekend in September, we gather to share local food and discuss the passed months. We make a table out of sawhorses and 2x10s and load it with all the Alaska food you can imagine—moose backstrap and flounder ceviche, three kinds of smoked salmon, sauerkraut and sourdough bread and beer to wash it all down (a little home-brew, a lot of cheap stuff in cans). We debrief about trips taken or not taken, too much work, too little, a good garden harvest, a bad fishing year, the biggest tomato of the summer. The party is chatty and laughing; no one comes to stand quietly.

This year, as usual, it rained. Bonfire, giant tarp, layers zipped up to our chins. Just before it grew dark and the rain lifted enough to allow the day’s clearest shaft of unfiltered sun, cranes streamed from the West and filled the sky with their chorused uproar. The party went still. Together, we watched: Susan and David who have lived here for 25 years, our 6-year-old friend Jake, someone's parents on the first night of a visit from Wisconsin. All of our faces uplifted. I can’t remember the last time I was outdoors with 30 silent people. The nightening sky was so noisy with cranes we could hardly have heard each other if we spoke anyway. I wondered about my clustered friends and neighbors, chins tipped upward as if receiving a blessing, though the cranes were their own world, too intent on survival and travel to bother with dispensing grace. Is everyone thinking what I am, looking to the sky that spans our homes? This is what I’m thinking: of course the cranes are here. They are our neighbors, too.

Read the rest here.


About the Author 

BYL-Lucy CapehartChristine Byl lives on a few acres of tundra north of Denali National Park outside the town of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and her stories and essays have appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies. She owns and operates a small trail design and construction business. She is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods.