There are no cranes in the Sierra Nevada. I believed for a long time that there could never have been, as these mountains are hundreds of miles from the nearest coastal wetlands, where cranes are found. But the oldest stories say otherwise. According to Miwuk legend, Sandhill Crane was the chief of the animal-people that lived in Yosemite Valley before we humans arrived. And there is a region of Yosemite called Crane Flat, a few hours north. The spot is supposed to have been named by John Muir, the talented nineteenth century naturalist, who wrote that the name of the meadow was inspired by “the shrill and startling cry of some sand-hill cranes we surprised as they were resting on this elevated table.” Perhaps these are errors carried over from previous centuries. Or is it that cranes lived here once, long enough to inspire the storytellers and the names of the past, before fading from the skies?
The sandhill cranes that ruled the legends of ancient Yosemite Valley are huge: nearly four feet tall, and a wingspan of almost seven feet. With bright red crests above their eyes, these birds would have been the obvious choice as monarchs of a magnificent valley. I saw a pair of them once, in a meadow a thousand miles from here. They were improbable creatures, with necks longer than any swan’s, and when there were startled they furiously flapped those unbelievable wings, rising straight into the air in an undignified frenzy, before settling down into their previous gracefulness on the wetland below. I watched them and wondered, how could we have failed to miss them? Surely we would have detected their absence, written something down about it? It would be like losing Atlantis—a whole city disappearing without anyone’s notice.
So I hunted them. I sifted through the archives and old renderings of the region until I found the lost wetland of the cranes. For centuries there was a vast marshland in the Central Valley, less than 100 miles from Yosemite. The birds must have stopped to rest in Sierra meadows during their migrations to and from this home. Now the Central Valley is hot and dry, but its history feeds the country. The wetland was drained long ago and plowed. The soils once made fertile by the marsh now grow, by some estimates, half of American’s produce. And so the sandhill cranes are gone to soggier regions, far away from here.
My friend Laura has two children, whom I regularly watch. The boy, Jake, is seven, and I have known him for most of his life. Jake loves a stuffed animal, a bright orange clownfish named Huggy Fish. Through the years I have spent with the kids at bedtime, I grew accustomed to hearing conversations between Jake and Huggy Fish: Jake talking to Huggy Fish, and then answering for Huggy Fish in a slightly higher voice, back and forth and back and forth between his usual voice and his Huggy Fish voice, well past his bedtime.
It struck me the other day that I had not heard the Huggy Fish voice in weeks. I suppose Jake has outgrown this bedtime ritual, and that conversations with Huggy Fish grew fewer and farther between over the course of months until the habit was quietly dropped altogether. If I had known it would be the last time I heard the Huggy Fish voice, I would have noted the date in my journal, mourned a little at the loss. There comes a last time for everything, and most of these lasts we miss entirely—a lonely crane flying silently overhead, not to be followed by any others. If only it occurred to us to look up more often.
When I was about Jake’s age, my family visited Yosemite every year. We went swimming at the hole near the bend in Raccoon Road, deep and quiet and edged by child-sized boulders, perfect perches for my sister and me. Often we stood in waist-deep water and splashed each other, or as a team splashed my long-suffering father. When we were very young we pretended we were mermaid princesses, and that the boulders were thrones. And then one year the river changed course, migrating just south of our swimming hole, and the pool was gone, and we were left with nothing but a bed of small, dry boulders. I wondered if something had gone terribly wrong. My father said that rivers just change course sometimes. After that we went to a swimming hole farther down the road, near the local shrine, which is where I swim all these years later.
This swimming hole is bordered by a series of pretty little cascades. When the river is flowing, it tumbles over rounded granite that is speckled and polished as marbles, and splashes into the pool below. Into the nearest of these pools I dive, swimming the elementary backstroke in circle after circle. I splash out and sprawl on the sunbaked granite and watch the light shift.
The shrine on the riverbank here is probably the only such installation in any national park. It’s hard to find amidst the ever-expanding azalea bushes, unless you know where to look. It is a three-walled structure, about four feet tall, with a corrugated tin roof. Inside is a statue of the Virgin Mary, clad in chipped white, with palms outturned, inviting the world in. Her neck is draped with rosaries, and at her feet sit bundles of faded silk flowers and never-lit white candles in glass jars. The river used to flood its banks most springs, sweeping off the corrugated roof and washing away all but the indefatigable Mary on her concrete pedestal. By June the structure would be restored and the offerings replaced. I have heard that the shrine was built during the Second World War by Polish immigrants, in thanksgiving for a safe passage out of crumbling Europe. Whether there are Polish descendants in these parts now quietly making annual repairs, I am not sure. But I’m glad someone is. We are all out of cranes—the least we can do is fix the roof.
Years ago, when I first moved to Yosemite, I used to mark the shifting of the seasons by the changing sound of the river. Most years it happened practically overnight: one day I would realize that I heard a new rumble amidst the usual birdsong, hum of insects, and grind of traffic. Yes, there it was: the river had begun to pick up, and if I listened hard I could hear it from my front porch. Before long that nascent sound dominated all the others, rising until its roar was inescapable.
For a few weeks a year, usually sometime in May, the South Fork Merced River was the most powerful thing around as the summer heat thawed the winter snowpack, swelling the Sierra’s rivers with snowmelt until they roared down the mountains at deadly velocity. During those weeks the river woke me up in the middle of the night through closed windows even though I lived a good half-mile away from its banks. In the morning I stood at the edge of the barely-recognizable river, wondering how the fury in front of me could possibly be the same sanguine waters that children would wade in by August. Everyone walked around feeling on-edge, unable to tune out the sound of the raw natural force of the South Fork as it hurled and churned its way westward. We waited for news of the first swiftwater fatality. There was at least one every spring.
The summers moved faster as the river got warmer, and by the time I could stand to put my feet in and keep them there, the end of the season seemed already to loom. When I gathered my nerve to submerge myself I would come up gasping and wonder what took me so long. For the rest of the summer I would spend long weekend afternoons spread out by the river, reading and dipping in when the heat built up and breathing the azaleas that emanated incense just up the hill.
Many years after it changed course, the South Fork ran nearly dry for the first time in living memory. At the time it was the warmest year on record, although subsequent ones have been hotter. That summer the absence of a rushing spring snowmelt rested dead and heavy over the dusty landscape. I sat on my porch and mourned the silence.
Our drinking water was drawn from the South Fork, and by July that year it became clear that there would be no drinking water in the coming months if we continued to depend on the river. Arrangements were made to truck water in from up north. The fountains were turned off at the hotel. Everyone stopped watering their lawns. Showers, we were instructed, should take no longer than five minutes. We prayed for rain with unseen fervor, but the rain never came. We should have started praying years ago, in preparation for this day we might have known was coming. A hundred years ago, the area’s residents may have offered up a similar prayer for the cranes they suddenly missed.
My great, great grandfather is a crane. I know only this about him: he was a blacksmith—a profession that is itself on its way to becoming a crane. Some time ago, some of his forebears got on a boat in some port in Europe and sailed to some other port in America, and some of their children or grandchildren or great grandchildren got in covered wagons or onto trains or simply walked, and came west. All this I must suppose because I am in California, where my parents and grandparents were born, and I have no real idea how we got here. The story is a crane. My ancestors are cranes, and the languages they spoke are cranes. A language is lost every two weeks or so, when the last native speaker dies. Something like 31,000 languages have existed since humans began stringing words together, and the crushing majority of those are gone for good. Six thousand languages remain today, and half of these are sustained by fewer than 10,000 speakers. All those myriad expressions and linguistic eccentricities—gone! The Greeks have four different words for love. The Hopi language has distinct words for drinking water in a container and a natural body of water. Sometimes as I write I stop to search for a word, and I look out the window and think, the perfect word must be out there. It is. It has gone to a new marshland, and my sentences are bare.
It is worth noting that we usually are not losing cranes so much as trading them for other things. We traded sandhill cranes and their wetland homes for farms and crops. We are trading a thousand languages for streamlined global communication. The Huggy Fish voice has been traded in for a modicum of maturity. I doubt the early farmers of the Central Valley knew they were making their livelihood at the cost of a magnificent bird. Who’s to say whether they would have cared? We are trading in species, in words, in whole landscapes—we always have been.
I will probably be a crane, from a long line of cranes. You will probably be one, too—almost everyone who ever lived is a crane now; lost, anonymous, marked only by small fragments of the bowls they used, or the dwellings they lived in, or nothing at all.
The South Fork has continued to run all but dry as less snow falls in the winter. We dive in earlier and are driven out sooner as a rushing aquatic fury gives way precipitously to a chalky bed of dry boulders. Some rare and precious years there is a mercifully abundant snowfall in the high country, and the May snowmelt makes the river unswimmable again, returning the raw spring force we hardly used to notice for its commonness. In years like these we pretend this is routine, that the dry years are an aberration, but this is denial. I sit on the cool granite bank and listen. Wawona Dome towers over the river, rotund and friendly, an inviting surface for the last play of blond light that lingers after the rest of our valley has gone to shadow. I imagine whole flocks of cranes filling the sky above me, thousands of cranes, so many cranes that they block out the sun.