Novelist and naturalist Matthiessen turns from the history and decline of the Siberian Tiger (Tigers in the Snow, 1999) to the magnificent crane, beloved but threatened throughout the world.
Matthiessen, an avid crane-watcher for over 40 years, here joins other passionate, sometimes eccentric conservationists in their quest to find crane habitats and tag birds so they can be studied. It’s no easy task. The birds themselves, naturally reticent and dwindling in number, are difficult to locate. And even as countless poems and fables testify to the beauty and power of the 15 extant species of cranes, humans’ need to grow food has drained many of the large, musical birds’ wetland mating grounds. Their peril is acute: In 1992, there were only six Indian Siberian cranes left in the wild, putting migratory patterns handed down from crane to crane for 15 million years at serious risk. The American whooping crane is now being bred in captivity in an effort to regenerate its once-strong population. The international conservation movement, only a few decades old, may have come too late to save these magnificent creatures. Matthiessen gracefully interweaves his own awestruck journey with the migration of the cranes. The chapters set in Mongolia and Bhutan are the most evocative and exciting, perhaps because the people Matthiessen meets there respect the cranes as much as he does. He is sympathetic in describing local attitudes toward cranes—by turns reverential and hostile—and chronicling the pressures people are under to sustain their own lives. His deepest sympathy, however, is with the birds, though his recommendations about their future conservation are tentative.
While amateur ornithologists will share Matthiessen’s excitement at seeing some of these species for the first time, even crane novices will be fascinated by his elegant depictions of these wondrous birds. (16 pages color illustrations by Robert Bateman, not seen)