Making Whoopers

Sandhill cranes are returning to our family farm in Wisconsin.

When I was growing up, they were a rare sight. I remember seeing a few flying far overhead, tiny crosses, wings, neck and legs all stretched out against the spring sky, We'd see a few more when visiting my grandpa down by Fairchild, sometimes a whole flock on the rise above the blueberry marshes. It was exciting, even better than spotting deer.

These days, many of the small family farms, including ours, are out of production. Pasture land is returning to wild land, and wildlife is making a comeback. And so a few summers back I was startled by a harsh croaking cry drifting through the open window of my mother's living room. "Oh, that's just cranes," my nephew Josh told me. "There's a whole bunch of them down below the road."

I'm glad to see them back. Cranes have made an indelible imprint on our language, from craning our necks to long-necked construction equipment. Even that snootiest of words, pedigree, comes from the French for crane's foot, referring to the branching of genealogical charts.

Besides, the Whooping crane is also found in Wisconsin, with their conservation centered on a foundation down in Baraboo. I can't help but hope that one day they'll be back on the hills of Wisconsin as well.

My cranes come from a photo taken at Malheur Wildlife refuge in Eastern Oregon, a row of sandhills striding across a stubble field. I paint them on pasta bowls, serving bowls and square bakers.

And crane my neck to see the real ones whenever I get the chance.