This rush of wings afar

"Tell us, ye birds, why come ye here,Into this stable, poor and drear?""Hast'ning we seek the newborn King,And all our sweetest music bring." ~ Charles L. Hutchins 1916

I had been looking for them for weeks, from the first real shock of cold weather in early November, expecting at any moment to be brought up short in the midst of a day’s round by the sound that is at once the most wistful and the most exhilarating I have heard in nature. To be arrested with the wild, sweet declaration of change in the air and the turn of the seasons. To be held fast and fixed in a spell of wonder that is the yearly migration flight of the sandhill cranes. I remember so many late afternoons in autumn, the yard around us violet with gathering shadows and the day’s last gilding just ebbing from the treetops as we stood with heads thrown back in a compliment of complete silence, watching the tiny black mass swirl and mount its heavenly way before pressing southward in a somewhat ragged ‘V’, always cherishing the jumbled cacophony of cries that must be deafening at close range and yet has about it all the poignancy and the bewildering exactitude of change ringing at such a distance.

They have always been a herald, a harbinger that electrifies me with aliveness and anticipation, and I love them for it.

But they have never been so late, in my memory. And I hadn’t realized just how intently I’d been listening for their glad tidings until it came.

It was one of those days that every second seemed to count. Every hour so carefully planned so as to press the last oil of productivity out of every moment. A day of loved preparation, no doubt, but ever teetering dangerously in the balance between ‘bustle’ and ‘huffing about’. The last sugar cookies were cooling on the racks and I was just measuring out the ingredients for gingerbread when I stopped as if I’d been tapped on the shoulder and caught my breath over that familiar ache of joy. I set down the jar of molasses and flew out the kitchen door, into the keen chill of a December afternoon, and whirled about, searching the sky.

I think I felt them before I saw them, in much the way that a person senses observation. For just as I turned in their direction, they appeared with a gliding sweep above the proud hedge of hollies that border the kitchen yard. At first I was too fascinated to realize that I had never seen them at such close range: their bodies were grey, not black as they always seemed, and I could even make out the darker tips of their enormous wings. I wondered wildly for a moment if they were going to land in our pasture, until it became obvious that the slow and solemn circle was on the ascent. Perhaps they had taken off from the watering hole out front—had been there for quite some time while I was inside and all oblivion, up to my ears in flour and colored sugar!

I stood transfixed as they mounted heavenward, as stately as a liturgical procession, with the occasional bird-shout of praise for good measure. And as they reached a certain height and came into a level with the slanting rays of the departing sun, an absolute miracle transpired. Each time the wheeling throng passed through the light, a wash of pure glory set them ablaze, running over them like the ripples of some heavenly watercourse, so that every wing was ‘sheathed with silver’ and every feather a flash of gold. On and on they soared, higher and higher, passing from shadow to splendor in a recurring parable of unearthly beauty.

Light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…

Soon after they forsook the charmed hold of light, and in a matter of a breathless moment or two they had unfurled themselves into perfect formation. And like a giant bracket with one leader at the fore and two lieutenants flanking him on either side, they passed swiftly over my head in reverent silence and glided away towards the south. I was shaken as I went back into the kitchen and regarded my late occupation. It seemed almost silly to reassume something as earthly as the baking of cookies after so heavenly a benediction. And yet, not silly. Sanctified, somehow, in the purifying glow of this holy Advent which appropriates all willing things unto itself and makes of a flight of birds or a flour-dusted kitchen a sacred thing and an intersection of the lay and the liturgical.

Philip and I later talked long by the fire of why I was so moved: why the advent of a flock of birds would bear such a palpable weight of glory to my waiting heart.

Why their shrill, metallic cries would seem the very voice of one calling in the wilderness.

“It’s because we see them every year,” he said, “and we know what they mean.”

That is precisely it. It’s that same paradox that Lewis talks about in The Screwtape Letters in speaking of our thrill at the change of seasons juxtaposed with our love of the familiar:

He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.

And that is precisely why Advent is such a present promise and Christmas a yearly miracle. If our own hopes and longings are a recurring theme, how much more so is God’s everlasting “Yes!” to our eternal “Why”?

The ‘Yes’ is Jesus, of course: Jesus in a manger; Jesus on a cross; Jesus coming again with power and great glory.

Jesus coming in familiarity and great particularity to our present need and thrilling us with a hope that defies reason.

The sandhill cranes were not late, any more than the God Who made them is late with the delivery on His promise. I’m so glad that they mingled themselves with my expectation this year and that Advent is the season they exulted over with their jubilant song.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Celestial fowles in the air,
Sing with your notes upon the height,
In firthes and in forests fair
Be mirthful now at all your might;
For passed is your dully night;
Aurora has the cloudes pierced,
The sun is risen with gladsome light,
Et nobis puer natus est.

Rorate coeli desuper, William Dunbar 1460-1520

Angels and shepherds, birds o' the sky, Come where the Son of God doth lie; Christ on earth with man doth dwell, join in the shout "Noel, Noel." ~ Charles L. Hutchins 1916

7 Responses to “This rush of wings afar”

  1. claudia adams says:

    They were late this year. I was in the den and heard, ran to the door and stood in vain in the driveway looking for them. My view was blocked by the trees they were behind but just hearing them was like running into an old friend unexpectedly. I always remember my first sight of them flying in formation…we were at Judy’s one fall afternoon with a Literary event. We all ran out and saw them flying so precisely …with a purpose. I am so glad you saw them up close!

  2. There is a lake in a town not too far from us where they stop every year on their way south. I’ve never been there before but I know people who carefully watch for them each year.

    We must be on an earlier flight path since I think it is usually September of October when they are expected.

    As for me, it is the sound of Canadian geese which which send me out of doors. They are just as much a part of autumn as the colored leaves. We also have a contest in our family as to who sees the first robin of spring. We are all on the lookout for the familiar bird (who is now called our “family bird”).

    The winner gets the Beanie Baby robin to display for the year. My daughter saw the first robin this year but her father says we must divide the family between New England and the Midwest for practical reasons. He only made that rule to give himself more time to win this year, I am quite certain.

  3. Diane Robertson says:

    Lanier: How lovely to imagine seeing what you saw as the sandhill cranes were flying in the sky! I can easily understand how your world stopped and you were caught up into another realm. I experience a similar sensation each Fall. In much the same way, I hear and then rush outside to watch, in the dwindling twilight, the wild geese flying south, silhouetted against the Blue Ridge Mountains. I am momentarily transfixed as I recognize that there is something of Beauty in that sight.

    Wasn’t it C.S. Lewis who spoke of how we all yearn to be part of that Beauty? And how in Jesus, we are united with the One who has created it all?

    We are truly blessed in the Lord!

  4. Sharon says:

    What a pleasure to read this essay this very evening.
    I was bundled up and doing small outside chores on this very cold day in south-central Kentucky, when I heard the sound of the cranes. At first I thought I was hearing one of the groups of wild turkeys which frequent this area.
    My attention was quickly directed upward and I recognized the raspy cry of the sandhill cranes [we knew them in Wyoming] and I watched while two smaller groups wheeled and swirled until they had become one purposeful flock.
    I’m glad to know that we are on their migratory pathway and that this event will be experienced each year.
    Incidentally, I learned The Carol of the Birds many years ago. Although my Mother’s copy was loaned and never returned, I’ve continued to play that unusual carol and wish that it was more commonly known.
    You’ve given me something special to embrace today!

  5. Heather says:

    What a beautiful entry. I felt as if I were there, hearing them myself, as I read your description.

  6. Betty says:

    Oh Lanier, one of the surprises we received moving from Miami, FL to Stuart, FL (2.5 hrs north), was daily visits from sandhill cranes. They especially like to lounge and preen in our front yard. Each morning and evening they fly and honk overhead as they commute to and from the little preserve in our area. They are beautiful birds producing very funny looking offspring. They have let us get quite close to them and occasionally they honk at us from our driveway begging for forbidden treats from my 7 year old. I’m so grateful for them.

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