Back to Nature (Published on - May 25, 2005)
Dance of the sandhill crane
Photo by Rick Tremmel
The sandhill crane has inspired many artists to attempt to emulate the spirit of the dance.
“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.” – Martha Graham (American dancer, teacher and choreographer of modern dance, 1894-1991)

The silk embroidery painting that hung in my grandmother’s parlour had a foreign elegance and mystery about it that a child of 11 found endlessly captivating. Softly painted, mist borne mountains formed the background while a red moon shown in the sky. Willow trees gently swayed with each breeze created by the updraft from a winding river that cut through the pastoral landscape.

In the foreground were still pools of quiet water flowered with pale pink and deep rose lotus blossoms. Within these peaceful waters two

enchanting sandhill cranes danced tall and regal in courtship, wings outspread, beaks open and heads tilted in courtship song. I dreamed that one day I might see this magical dance, the dance of the sandhill cranes.

Years later my wish came true.

The sandhill crane has soft gray plumage, sometimes stained with the tannins and iron stains of the waters of the tundra and marshes. The sandhill crane is one of 15 species of cranes worldwide and one of two species of cranes in North America; the whooping crane and the sandhill crane.

Within North America there are six subspecies of sandhill crane. Sandhill cranes are one of the largest breeding birds in Florida. The Florida race of sandhill cranes typically starts nesting earlier (late December) than the others and continues into June. Northern birds migrate to Florida in winter (October to November) and return to their Canadian breeding grounds in the spring (February to March). The sandhill crane is considered threatened by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The sandhill crane, standing 4 to 5 feet high, is tall and stately. When in flight their necks are outstretched and often in flight you may hear their loud rattling call: kar-r-r-r-o-o-o. Sandhill cranes prefer wet or dry prairies, fields and meadow and fresh water marshes where they often gather in large noisy flocks.

The Florida species seems to prefer to keep together in pairs. All sandhill cranes are monogamous and mate for life. As mates they remain very loyal to each other and will fiercely defend one another. Pair bonding occurs as early as 2 years of age. The nest is built by both adults, generally in wet areas, of sticks, reeds, grasses, and mosses. Nest bulk may depend on elevation or wetness of the site. Two buff-to-olive eggs marked with olive-brown are laid a few days apart, and incubation, shared by both parents, takes 28 to 32 days.

The crane dance embroidered upon my grandmother’s silk painting depicts the famous mating, courtship dance of the sandhill crane, two dancers in sync with each other’s movements, committed for life. As one pair begins dancing the excitement soon flows and inspires the rest of the flock. As each dancer joins, the flock emerges as dancers upon a stage and the tempo increases.

This ballet, consisting of a series of jumps, bowing back and forth and stick-tossing movements, appear to be choreographed by Martha Graham herself, but humankind can only attempt to emulate nature. Nature teaches us that what is natural is precious and what takes place naturally is the dream of each inventor’s reproduction.

My grandmother’s delicately embroidered painting inspired the longing in a young girl’s heart to see the dance of the cranes. Only upon observing the dance in person, was then the dream fulfilled, back to nature.

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