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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 1996


What is it about the wet mucky stuff that prompts both man and bird to bay?

Justin Isherwood

Spring, as any observer can tell you, is a bumper-jack season, meaning it has increments. It tends to skip cogs, sometimes slip backwards; it's not the kind of place as is safe to work under, and a farmer shouldn't until he's got it blocked up.

Still, there's a moment in Spring when what is fine and plumb about creation is both visible and audible. As a sensation it is not so spectacular as winning the lottery or as humble as the sandwiches at a funeral buffet; yet it is a memorable moment, the exact of looking the universe in the eye.

The moment I'm talking about is precise, at least as precise as a northern spring can be. It happens just after the snow melts in the fields, leaving in its wake a vast post-glacial landscape of pure mire. One step beyond the road edge and the adventurer sinks as deep as the fetlock. A more alien, sinister expanse cannot be imagined; it is unredeemable, uncaring, and gives not the slightest indication of departing any time soon.

Over this lost cause of a place flies this . . .this . . . contraption. Not a bird but a mistake, a Rube Goldberg design. Awkward as an Edsel, top-heavy, ill- proportioned, a geeky-looking thing. It lights on the mire, statuesque as Abe Lincoln in a pair of biker shorts. "Bizarre" doesn't cover the collection of avian debris cobbled together to create this flying beast. It is too . . . too . . . angular, too grotesque, too many sharp edges, which is bad enough but not the half of it.

For when The Moment arrives, this dinosaur, this thing throws back its head in an egregious and passionate toss. Stretches forth its neck in pre-vocal threat – a longer prelude to vulgarity you'll never hear – and then spills . . . no, it is more than a spill, it is a pouring, an ejaculation, a gush, a dam-burst of horrid brutal pitch harsh enough to curdle milk.

I correct myself. "Horrid" is too lax a term. Make that "as sarcastic as utterance gets prior to arrest."

The Hindus are right about this bird: The reincarnated soul incarcerated within the breast of a sandhill crane must have been one bad fellow indeed.

Yet I swear it is the right sound, combination war-whoop, elation and electrocution at the arrival of spring. From this moment and this creature I take catechism. If this fool can yodel over mud with such abandon and volume, so can I. I'll duel the thing, vowel for vowel, glottal stop for glottal stop if it's a question of who owns this expanse of muck.

Hand me a walking stick and those eight-buckle galoshes and I'm ready to do Dueling Banjos with that pennasaur. I don't care if the bird has been here since the Pleistocene – I pay the rent and employ the registrar of deeds.

Doing the sandhill is three parts volume, two parts trill. A couple beers beforehand helps. Throw back your head like you're cocking to spit a watermelon seed, breathe in a stock-tank volume of air, then cut the bands. Sounds like "adieu adieu adieu" with a dribble of the tongue against the upper palate; this is not for polite company or when your mother-in-law is visiting.

There is a place down the road, past the creek, past the tamarack, past the butternut, an in-between sort of place in the latitude of the moor. Out in this sorry heck of nowhere I park the pickup truck and go sit on the tailgate and holler with the sandhills.

I have friends who take regular classes in duck calls. Guys who paid good money for a kitchen drawer full of hand-hewn goose noise, turkey deceivers and big buck rattlers. But I'm not about to confess the utter joy I feel howling up a duet with a sandhill just back from the Platte.

That sound is the anthem of spring. No, it's more than that – it is spring condensed, confirmed. Not a skunk cabbage in sight, not a maple in flower, and over this desolation that noise rules. It might echo were there leaves on the hill trees. Instead, the sound plunges through the layers of place, heard even in the village above the racket of the cement plant and the motorcycles.

Cosmologists tell of the Great Echo out there, a remnant of Genesis you can hear with amplifiers and oscilloscopes. There is another sound, nearer, easier to hear, no apparatus necessary. It is not sufficiently tame to call music. The scale is another octave above blood-thirsty opera; it is closer in spirit to punk rock, for it dares us to shrug off advanced calculus and perma-press and hard roads and perch on uncertain ground, to throw back our heads and conjoin the refrain, to frolic in the mud. No points, no gold stars, no tax refund; just a moment of noise offered as loud as you can make it before climbing back into your shiny costume.

Justin Isherwood bellows with the birds and scratches the soil in Plover, Wisconsin