Prompted by a recommendation here, I am reading The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky. He relates that the Eveny of Siberian used to say that reindeer were created by the sky god Hövky not only to provide food and transport on earth, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun. There was a ritual each Midsummer day symbolizing the ascent of each person on the back of a winged reindeer. At the highest point the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a "bird of extreme sacredness"
Recently, a magazine asked me to write a very short piece about the Red-crowned Crane in its Japanese habitat.* Here it is:
Kushiro marsh, on Japan's northernmost island Hokkaido, is a pocket wilderness four times the size the island of Manhattan. Much is bog and reedbed, but beside the river that winds generously through it there are also thickets of black alder and patches of grassland as well as shallow lakes. Damp and mostly cool, with temperatures hovering below zero in mid winter and seldom exceeding 20º C even at the hottest time of year, the air, which is often foggy, is thick with the sounds and smells of more than a thousand species of plants and animals, including the Hokkaido deer and the white-tailed sea eagle. And this is a last stronghold for the Red-crowned Crane. Some 1,000 individuals, out of the global population of fewer than 3,000 wild birds, live here year round.
Every year, tens of thousands of humans flock to watch the birds dance. As in the adumu, the jumping display of the Maasai people, the cranes spring straight up from a standing start and, aided by their light frame and delicate wing movements, rise above the heads of their fellows as effortlessly as if they were bouncing on the Moon. Returning to Earth, they lift an impossibly long black leg in greeting, then curl the neck over so that the head is lower than the body and walk past their partner. Then the male and female promenade slowly, side by side, occasionally throwing back their heads to emit a loud, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o. It is a mesmerising spectacle. Scientists will tell you that the dances, which take place throughout the year, are both acts of courtship and reaffirmation of a pair bond, which lasts a lifetime. To all outward appearances, however, they are expressions of pure joy.
The Red-crowned – or tancho, which means red top in Japanese – is one of the largest of the world's fifteen species of Crane. Its wingspan can reach two and half metres (eight feet). On the ground, it is as tall as a grown woman. It can live for forty years in the wild – longer than almost any other bird. Individuals in captivity have been known to reach seventy. Its feathers are brilliant snow white for the most part, but solid black on the neck and the wing secondaries. These extraordinary qualities have earned it a special place in Japanese culture as a token of grace, dignity and longevity. A Thousand Cranes, a fifteen metre long painting completed by Tawaraya Sōtatsu in 1611, is a classic of Japanese art. Later in the 17th century, the haiku poet Matsu Basho depicted the bird as a being at one with its watery environment: “The shallows/A crane’s thighs splashed/ In cool waves.” An Origami instruction manual published in 1798 enshrined the folding of a thousand paper cranes as a spiritual and meditative discipline. The tradition sustained eleven year old Sadako Sussaki as she died of leukaemia ten years after having been a mile from ground zero at Hiroshima, and is said to be posed as test of concentration and endurance for trainee Japanese astronauts.
Fondness for the Red-Crowned Crane as a symbol did not always translate into protection in practice. A craze for their feathers in hats brought them to the brink of extinction by the early 20th century. In the 1920s the resident population of Hokkaido island was thought to have fallen as low as twenty individuals. Amazingly, this remnant held on and, following an exceptionally severe winter in 1952, local farmers and residents, including one Yoshitaka Ito, began to feed the birds regularly. Gradually, the population recovered. In the 1960s the species received official protection as a Special Natural Treasure. A large area of Kushiro Marsh was declared a national park in 1987 with the chief aim of protecting them.
Conservation of their habitat and feeding by hand account for the recovery of the Red-crowned Crane in Hokkaido, at least for now. And these factors, together with the fact that there is almost nowhere else for them to go in Japan explain why they do not migrate. The situation is quite different on the neighbouring margin of the Asian continent, where the species once flourished. From wintering sites on the Chinese and Korean coast, the birds migrated to summer grasslands in the interior as far north as what is now Russian territory in flocks that may have once been in the tens of thousands. Today's flocks seldom number more than a few hundred and are dwindling fast.
New efforts at protection in Russia and in China, where the Crane's cultural resonance probably dates back to at least an association with the immortals of Taoist stories more than two thousand years old, may yet turn a corner in the fate of the Red-crowned Crane on the continent. For the moment, however, continuing urban and agriculture development in their favoured habitats, together with a warmer climate, which the birds do not like, as well as other factors such as disease (which could also strike the inbred Japanese population) could yet do them in. For the moment we can still witness in these amazing birds some of the astonishing beauty produced as if by accident in the Earth's evolutionary past that may yet survive into its future.
* The magazine decided not to publish the piece on the grounds that it does not give a sense of what it feels like to be there. If someone wants to send me so that I can actually find out please don't hesitate to get in touch. ha ha