The NY Times obituary for Peter Matthiessen who died on April 5 described him as a ‘man of many parts: litterateur, journalist, environmentalist, explorer, Zen Buddhist, professional fisherman, a CIA undercover agent’ (briefly) and the only writer to win the National Book Award for fiction and nonfiction! To me he was the author of The Birds of Heaven, his remarkable, humane and beautiful book about cranes. He made me feel at once desperate and passionate about the plight of these majestic imperiled creatures. So much so that when I passed the book onto my artist daughter, Alexandra Sax (www.alexsax.net) she soon called me and said, “when are we going?” imagining that I had recommended a trip to see cranes for ourselves.
We did make a trip – not, as Matthiessen did, to Siberia, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Bhutan, India, Korea, Japan, Australia, South Africa, England, Sudan and Tanzania – but to the International Crane Foundation (www.savingcranes.org) in Baraboo Wisconsin which I will describe, but first here is an example of his exquisite writing.
Recalling what he saw at dawn in the Mongolian desert:
“A mile beyond, a solitary camel passes in the silver shimmer, then a lone human figure in wavering silhouette, fallen far behind; in the hallucinatory light, the dark vessel on her head is an outlandish crown. The two creatures in their vague relation have appeared from nowhere in the desert, rising minutely from the landscape and inching onward across the mirror of white sun and on down the line of the horizon. In the mirage, they walk on water, with only light beneath them.”
By the time we arrived in Madison WI and rented a car for the hour drive out to Baraboo we knew that the subject of our upcoming joint exhibition scheduled for the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan CT (2003) was going to be cranes. When we left the ICF our collaborative exhibition had a name: The Crane Project, for we hoped to be able to convey what we had experienced while at the ICF and to be able to translate it into an urgent call for the protection of cranes.
The ICF is the only place where all 15 species of cranes exist together. Located on 160 acres five miles north of Baraboo Wisconsin, the ICF was founded in 1973 and is dedicated to saving the world’s cranes, and supports scientists and conservationists working on five continents. Crane populations worldwide are dwindling and seven of the species are currently endangered. In addition to establishing this global network, the ICF focuses on breeding and caring for cranes in captivity, restoring and protecting habitats, and reintroducing cranes into the wild.
While there we photographed and sketched while observing cranes nesting, stalking, and dancing their elaborate courtship ritual. We recorded the eerie bugle like sounds cranes produce with their long necks. We watched cranes soar above us. Some species are as tall as 6 feet and have a wingspread of up to 8 feet.
We returned to our separate studios in Fairfield CT and in Astoria NY and created our individual works: two -and three -dimensional works in oil, pastel, and mixed media including ten portraits of crane species, a 6 foot wide environmental painting, and an installation of life-size papier-mâché cranes.
Inspired by the increasing precariousness of the survival of cranes on earth as well as to celebrate the ambassador-like grace with which they travel the globe The Crane Project was tribute to the beauty and mystery of the crane, the elegant and noble bird whose ancestry goes back to prehistoric times.
Symbols of royalty and power, of longevity, monogamy, and good luck, and admired for their grace cranes have for centuries inspired poets and painters, sculptors, musicians and dancers, writers and folklorists. If cranes vanished from the earth we would lose both a window back to the beginning of time and a window to the future: the plight of cranes on the planet is a measure of our uneasy relationship with the environment.