Tag Archives: cranes

Interpreting the cranes

Poke about online and you’ll find a lot of references to the ancient Druids using ogham for divination, and as a consequence being described as having ‘Crane knowledge’. There is much to be cautious about here. Firstly the ogham itself, which might well not be ancient, and the relationship between Druids and cranes. The idea of the crane bag – a tiny bag of wisdom items carried by Druids, may be something derived wholly from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. The idea of ogham as ancient, sacred, mystical language of the Druids, and as method for divination, probably comes from there too.

I’ve read The White Goddess. I’ve also read a Peter Beresford Ellis essay on the subject of Graves’ ogham fabrications, and I’ve read Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess, which flags up many issues around Graves’ work, including the ancientness of ogham. The trouble with Graves is that his influence is widespread, and his ideas are touted around the Pagan community as ancient truth in ways that are bloody difficult to unpick.

It is therefore entirely possible that Druids did not spend any time at all reading mystical ogham messages in the flight of cranes.

However, of all the birds a person might look to for mystical signs in flight, cranes strike me as the most interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time sat in hides and windows watching birds. The thing about most birds, is that once you get to know them, there’s plenty of logic to what they do. They have methods for flying that suit their purposes. Little birds, vulnerable to predation, fall like leaves out of branches. Large winged buzzards soar on the thermals, because they can. Crows attack falcons, not to proclaim coming revolution, but to defend nests and territory. Fishing birds get active when the fish do. They have patterns that repeat over days, habits, preferences, tastes. Spend enough time watching, and the mysterious behaviour of birds resolves into something wholly intelligible.

Except for the flight of cranes, that is. I’ve seen cranes in flight a few times now. They have huge wingspans, long, delicate legs, long necks, and are capable of making a lot of shapes in the sky. Most birds tuck their feet in when in flight, but crane legs seem to get all over the place. The shapes they make are many. They also like posing when on the ground and court with a crane dance that offers all kinds of interesting moves. I would bet that what cranes do makes perfect sense to cranes, but for the observer it’s not too easy to match the shapes they make with obvious intentions. The bigger a flock of cranes, the more complex things they may seem to write across the sky. With their otherworldly calls, and their rather glamorous presence, they really do stand out as birds that might be embodying messages from the divine.

A scatter of wings and legs across a wintery sky. A flash and arc of cranes in flight as they move between feeding places. The human temptation to see a message, written in bird form. What did it say? What did it mean? To the cranes, it meant they were shifting field, for whatever reason. Did the universe pick the moment of their flight to have a little conversation with itself?

Then there were the great flocks of lapwings, weaving across the sky – an act of alarm at the possible presence of a predator, but those swirling bird forms paint the sky in ways that suggest meaning. Crows and lapwings flying across each other in the high wind, a tapestry of bird forms. Does it mean something?

The human mind is predisposed to look for patterns and meanings. That’s one of the features that has turned us into what we now are. We see meaning in randomness – as the Rorschach ink blots have taught us. We find it reassuring to have meanings, and we have a collective obsession with the idea that patterns can be interpreted to give us some control over the future. Be that patterns in currency markets, education outcomes, political policies or the flight of cranes. We really don’t want to believe that the world is a random place that has nothing to say to us. However, in our desire to impose a meaning, I wonder if we miss the subtle things that might be actually there. A lack of meaning would sometimes do a lot more to comfortably explain life, and even more critically, death, than this desire to interpret.

Crane song

Coming back to the boat today, I saw four cranes in flight and heard them call out. This was a moment of awe and wonder for me, leaving me tearful and gasping. Cranes were driven to extinction in the UK, and these four are part of a reintroduction program. They are the first wild cranes I’ve ever seen, and there’s every reason to think they won’t be the last.

Sometimes, when humans mess up, it is possible to restore the balance.

Go back a handful of years and I was involved with a ritual honouring the lost creatures of the landscape. At that point as far as we knew, the cranes and the wild boar had gone. But there are boar in the Forest of Dean, and there are cranes on the Somerset levels, and sometimes, on the Severn.

We won’t see the aurochs again though – giant, hairy cows who used to roam our forests. The last one died in Poland in I think the 1600s. (Dates are not a strongpoint with me.) They are gone, entirely and forever, available only in imagination. They haunt me, and I feel their absence in ways I cannot begin to explain.

Not so many days ago my son and I were talking about symbiotic relationships and co-evolution. He’s doing seed dispersal at school, which prompted it. There are trees that depended on their seeds going through the dodo’s digestive system to get germination started. Without the dodo, the trees do not reproduce, and eventually, they will be gone. I suppose we might hang on to them by grafting; apple species after all depend on this method, your natural apple does not produce the kinds of apples you get in supermarkets. They all come from grafts. But the tree would depend on us, and have little scope for genetic variance. I have no idea what will happen on that score.

In all aspects of life, there are awful mistakes we get to come back from, and ones that, like the dodo and the auroch, are forever. It’s not always obvious until it’s far too late to do anything. The longer we spend refusing to recognise mistakes, refusing to admit we’re messing up, the worse it gets. We nearly lost our otters here in the UK out of blind refusal, for years, to admit that our water systems were being poisoned. We nearly lost our red kites.

This is as true in any aspect of our lives as it is on the ecological front. Sometimes there are no second chances. We’d be a lot better off trying harder not to mess up that badly in the first place. The people who hunted the dodo to death would never have guessed they were also killing a tree. We do not know what else will fall when we mess up fragile eco systems, or human structures, or relationships, or anything else.

Today there were cranes. Today there was something like a second chance, a reprieve, a reason for hope. But there will be no aurochs.