My Sandhill Crane
Yesterday morning when I was cleaning out the cleaning closet – the last step in preparing the cottage for the summer – I was suddenly very startled. It was very early in the morning. The sun had just woken. A new day was dawning. Should I focus and appreciate the rising of the sun or finish cleaning up the last remnants of the previous summer?
Some very local geography first. Our family cottage is located on an island in Georgian Bay. It is quite isolated and we have no close neighbours. But we are not on the open bay, but on an island in a very large bay, Shawanaga, off the very much larger body of water that is itself the size of one of the Great Lakes. The cottage sits at the pinnacle of the island which is just a six-acre treed outcropping of rock. The back door to the cottage has a large glass plate the length of the door. It stands right next to the cleaning closet.
The noise that startled me was a loud rat-a-tat. Repeated. No, not rat-a-tat, but tat-tat-tat, repeated loud sharp noises in rapid succession against the glass. I looked up and before me on the other side of the glass stood a bird as high as my mid-chest – and I am still over six feet even though I have certainly been shrinking in the last two decades. The bird had a very long beak and I thought it was going to break the glass against the door. The bird’s bill was longer that its head was tall. Its neck was long and thin as it thrust back and forth hitting the window with its beak each time with a noise loud enough that I thought it would waken my wife.
I was standing on one side of the glass and the bird was on the other. I had never seen such a large bird – it was not as large as an ostrich that I had seen up close in South Africa – but not nearly this close. The black legs were very long so I knew it was some kind of wading bird. I thought of the flamingos that I had seen around the Ngorongoro Crater in Kenya. But the only bright colour of this bird was its scarlet red crown. Otherwise, the bird was a mottled gray. If it had a bath, would it become white? Later, when we looked for the bird in our bird book – my wife found the picture instantly – the description said the bird could have a rusty wash on its upper body, but I saw none. Nor did I see its evidently famous “bustle” at the back, for the bird was facing me.
But not just facing me. And not just trying to thrust its beak through the window. It was doing a bit of its dance as it came forward, jabbed the window about ten times, and then danced back, only to thrust forward again almost immediately. The bird was alone. I did not know whether it was a male or a female, but I presumed it was a male because of its aggressive behaviour.
Should I wake my wife? She loves birds. I bet she had never seen such a large bird facing her and just a pane of glass away. But I remembered when we arrived at the cottage. That same glass window was covered in blood. Had a bird injured itself badly against the window? There had been some feathers on the back porch. Were they grey? Maybe it was this bird’s mate and it was seeking revenge. But all I could think of was that the bird might break the glass, that the bird was probably injuring itself, that the bird might wake my wife.
I started to make noises and do my own wild dance to chase the bird away, all accompanied by a low roar – if a roar could possibly be low. The bird stepped back, a bit startled, but clearly unafraid. Then it thrust forward again with the loud tat-a-tat of its bill against the glass of the door.
Suddenly, it turned, spread its wings – the span was at least six feet – and flew upwards towards the north in a low flight pattern that soon circled back south as it increased altitude. Other than its huge flapping wings – though they only flapped at the beginning for the bird seemed to be a glider – the bird now seemed so large that the body, compared to when the bird stood tall before me, seemed to shrink. Of course, that body was now horizontal, like a very aerodynamic missile. As the bird rose, it seemed to require very few strokes. And all of this right in front of my eyes!
I never heard it make a sound, though someone, whom I saw later yesterday at a book launch back in Toronto, told me that its honking sound was prehistoric, more like a haunting bellows rather than the honking of geese. It was also suggested that the bird was engaged in a mating dance. Had it fallen for me? Had I scared off a very large bird that was courting me?
My ego was quickly deflated when it was suggested that the bird saw a reflection of itself and thought it was a female. The male and female look alike. The bird was not courting me. Nor was it being narcissistic. Rather, it probably saw – or thought it saw – a potential mate. It was baffled at the sight of me. It had never seen quite as strange a dance. And the sounds coming out of my mouth were very prehistoric. Later, when we were reading about the bird, we learned that it was a sandhill crane that mates for life. I clearly was not a suitable partner. It is also a very ancient bird with the oldest bird fossil 2.5 million years old.
The sandhill crane is largely found north of Sudbury and North Bay, but my informant at the book launch told me that he had seen a nesting pair on an outer island nearby. He told me they laid very large oval brown eggs. Presumably their breeding grounds and range had been creeping south with climate change.
The formal species name of the sandhill crane that I saw is Antigone Canadensis. Canadensis make sense for this is Canada. But Antigone? Anti came from the Greek meaning “opposed to,” but sometimes “compared to.” Given the Greek myth of Antigone, I took it to mean opposed; the story was one of conflict between two different sources of moral authority. But, in this case, opposed to what? γονη, (goné) in Greek means birth or offspring, so that the dance I saw performed could very well have been a courting ritual. But that still does not explain Antigone and the theme of opposition.
Let me explain. Antigone is the main character in a Greek myth that Hegel discusses at some length in The Phenomenology of Spirit. One of my graduate students wrote her thesis on that section. The issue was not on pride and the hubris of Icarus who flew too close to the sun so the wax in his wings melted and he plummeted to the ground. Nor is it about Hegel’s owl of Minerva, the bird after whom the lead periodical on Hegelian scholarship in English is named.
Hegel in the preface to the Philosophy of Right wrote, “When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.” I saw my sandhill crane in the early hours of the morning, not at dusk. Though the bird was gray, it was not the colouring of a life grown old beyond rejuvenation when an age of history is ending and cannot be resurrected and when the only obligation is to recall and understand the past. I believe that my bird was seeking to give new birth to life. But, to ask again, why then Antigone, even though goné in Greek means “birth” or “offspring”? For the tale of Antigone is as dark a story as you will ever read.
Antigone was perhaps cursed at birth. Her father was Oedipus – the guy who slew his father and married his mother, inspiring Freud with his greatest brand. Antigone’s mother was Jocasta, the Queen of Thebes who was married to King Laius. However, the couple was told by a prophet that their son would grow up and kill the father. So, like Abraham, they took the infant up the mountain, bound him, but, unlike Abraham, left the baby to be eaten by birds of prey. But no such “luck.” The child survived and grew up to unknowingly slay his father. And marry his own mother. And then poke out his own eyes when he discovered the truth. Thus, Jocasta was both the mother and grandmother of Antigone.
With a parentage like that, as a product of incest, what chance did she have? However, she was both a very loyal and determined girl. When her father, blinded, went into exile, she accompanied and guided him. When he died and she returned to Thebes, she found that her two brothers were at war, Eteocles defending Thebes and Polyneices attacking the regime. Both were killed in the battle and Antigone’s uncle Creon became king. He buried Eteocles in an elaborate state funeral, but issued an edict, in accordance with the law of the land concerning treason, that the body of Polyneices be left on the field. Whether enemy or friend, in death everyone deserved to be buried. And Antigone refused to comply with her uncle’s command and had Polyneices buried.
Creon had Antigone arrested and locked in a cave to die. However, Antigone was engaged to her cousin, Creon’s son, Haemon, who was deeply in love with Antigone. Haemon went to the cave to free Antigone, only to find she had hung herself. In despair, he took his own life.
The central theme for Hegel in this tale was not a story of the Owl of Minerva and the death of an era. Nor was it of rebirth and a new age emerging. Rather, it was a tale of the process of history. Creon was a figure of state who believed he had to uphold positive written law and deny any burial for Polyneices, his own nephew, because Polyneices was regarded as a traitor.
But Polyneices was the brother of Antigone and Antigone felt she had to follow a higher law, a divine law, a humane law, a natural law, a law at odds with positive law. She followed her principles and died for them.
The issue is not the end of days when both divine and humane law have become exhausted. This was not the time for the Owl of Minerva to pronounce the death of the old and the obligation to recollect and understand. Nor was the tale about birth of a new era. It is a struggle between positive law gone awry and the obligation to stand up and be counted in opposition to defend a higher moral law.
Was my sandhill crane an omen?
With the help of Alex Zisman
Michael R. Marrus, CM, BA, MA, PhD, MSL, FRSC, FRHistS Massey College in the University of Toronto 4 Devonshire Place Toronto M5S 2E1 Canada
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