Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hope Takes Wing

Sometimes, humanity is awesome, and people accomplish amazing things. Like, for instance, landing a probe on a freakin' comet. That's just mind-bogglingly awesome, with a standing ovation success moment worthy of cinematic standing and cheering. When we do things like this, yeah, we know we'll eventually overcome the gravity well and explore the universe.

There are quieter victories going on every day around us, too, projects of amazing vision and scope that take years of work to achieve smaller victory after victory. building toward a success so incredible it will seem only natural when it's done. Take, for example, Operation Migration.

In the 1940's, there were only 15 whooping cranes left alive in the wild. After eight decades of conservation work, the population is up to just under 600. That's the result of year after year of hard work by dedicated volunteers. These are environmentalists in the truest sense - not the posing for the cameras and shouting that fur is bad, but in the shoveling shit and spending year after year raising the birds and working through the massive amounts of bureaucracy and regulation between America and Canada to re-establish them. These men and women are to environmentalists what Ayan Hirsi Ali is to feminism: the real deal, willing to tackle the hardest issues and be out there for the long, dirty, hard and dangerous haul.

Unfortunately, migratory patterns in cranes are like legends, languages, and cultures for humans: something that has to be passed from generation to generation. When the last wild crane who flew the migration between Canada and the Gulf Coast died, so passed all the stops, all the ways to catch the wind, all the timing and the landmarks and the knowledge that there ever was a eden filled with food and warmth over winter, and a perfect breeding ground in the far north. All those moments were, indeed, lost like tears in the rain. The cranes left stayed right where they were at, never understanding the urge within that comes at the changing of the seasons.

And that is where a group of people, starting from the realization that Canada Geese could imprint on an ultralight and fly with it, took hard science and raw hope, and merged the two with a crazy idea: teaching the cranes to migrate, by imprinting them on an ultralight and leading them all the way down. Isn't that a crazy idea? Take a trike, that can't handle rough air, in the cold winter winds, for over a thousand miles... and convince a flock of wild birds to stay with you the whole time.

It works.

The first wild chick was hatched in 2006 and followed its parents along the route OM taught them. It was confirmed that December near the wintering grounds in Florida - proving that the concept was sound. It was the first wild-produced migratory Whooping crane to hatch in eastern U.S. since the last nest was reported in 1878.

And this is why, this morning, Peter and I stood on the side of the road watching hopefully over harvested cotton fields, along with several other folks. We were watching the dawn break and waiting for the pilots and ground crew to come over the radio with "They're airborne." And they did - for a moment, the lead trike rose with seven great big white birds (still speckled brown with juvenile feathers) forming a V off its wingtips.

Of course, nothing ever goes perfectly when working with wild animals, and so the morning became a rodeo, trying over and over to catch the birds as they broke away on their own, heading back to the pen where they'd been. They only made it a mile today - but that's one mile closer for this flock. They'll make it yet!

So, the next time you've had your belly full of the idiocy of humanity, and are feeling despair and gloom, remember this: people can be awesome, and there are great things being accomplished out there if you go looking for them.