The Unphotographable #7: Richard Powers on the Majestic Mass Migration of Sandhill Cranes

Generally, a portray in phrases is value a thousand footage. I take into consideration this increasingly more, in our compulsively visible tradition, which more and more reduces what we predict and really feel and see — who and what we’re — to what could be photographed. I consider Susan Sontag, who referred to as it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century earlier than Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I provide The Unphotographable — Saturdays, a stunning picture in phrases drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with magnificence and feeling past what a visible picture might convey.

Every winter, on the banks of the Platte River in Nebraska, one in every of Earth’s most otherworldly spectacles pours its cascade of white and crimson: the mass migration of sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis — elegant emissaries of prehistory carrying the story of this world on their again.

No {photograph} or footage can seize the sweeping grandeur of their myriad, the surreality at scale.

Within the opening pages of his 2006 novel The Echo Maker (public library), Richard Powers paints in phrases the actually unphotographable — a transportive piece of deep historical past that’s directly a ravishing invitation to absolute presence:

Cranes preserve touchdown as night time falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack towards the sky. They float in from all compass factors, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the nightfall. Scores of Grus canadensis choose the thawing river. They collect on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. Extra birds land by the minute, the air purple with calls. A neck stretches lengthy; legs drape behind. Wings curl ahead, the size of a person. Unfold like fingers, primaries tip the chook into the wind’s aircraft. The blood-red head bows and the wings sweep collectively, a cloaked priest giving benediction. Tail cups and stomach buckles, shocked by the upsurge of floor. Legs kick out, their backward knees flapping like damaged touchdown gear. One other chook plummets and stumbles ahead, preventing for a spot within the packed staging floor alongside these few miles of water nonetheless clear and broad sufficient to cross as protected. Twilight comes early, as it would for a number of extra weeks. The sky, ice blue by way of the encroaching willows and cottonwoods, flares up, a short rose, earlier than collapsing to indigo. Late February on the Platte, and the night time’s chill haze hangs over this river, frosting the stubble from final fall that also fills the bordering fields. The nervous birds, tall as kids, crowd collectively wing by wing on this stretch of river, one which they’ve realized to search out by reminiscence. They converge on the river at winter’s finish as they’ve for eons, carpeting the wetlands. On this gentle, one thing saurian nonetheless clings to them: the oldest flying issues on earth, one stutter-step away from pterodactyls. As darkness falls for actual, it’s a newbie’s world once more, the identical night as that day sixty million years in the past when this migration started.


There’s solely right here, now, the river’s braid, a feast of waste grain that can carry these flocks north, past the Arctic Circle. As first gentle breaks, the fossils return to life, testing their legs, tasting the frozen air, leaping free, payments skyward and throats open. After which, as if the night time took nothing, forgetting all the things however this second, the daybreak sandhills begin to dance. Dance as they’ve since earlier than this river began.

Earlier unphotographables: Georgia O’Keeffe on the grandeur of Machu Picchu; Iris Murdoch on the ocean and the celebrities; an Alpine transcendence with Mary Shelley; an Alaskan paradise with Rockwell Kent.

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