In the pink, milky light of dawn, Lucy pulls her scarf tighter against the cold as we make our way down the dirt road to the sleeping marshlands of the Phobjika Valley. Burnt dry by the icy winter winds, the once verdant grasslands have been leached of colour, sandy tufts poking out below the thick covering of frost. The spreading light throws a warm glow over the forests that line the valley walls, home of the Himalayan black bear, muntjac deer and the rare clouded leopard. But we are here searching for another creature, the fabled black-necked crane.
Perhaps because of their size, their elegance or their odyssean migrations, cranes have captured the imaginations of cultures the world over and are mythologised in ancient and contemporary cultures alike. There’s a kind of ethereal quality to these stories that insists on the separation of cranes from their human counterparts.
In Japan, a famous folk tale tells the story of a poor peasant man who one day finds an injured crane with an arrow in its wing. He nurses the crane back to health and soon it is able to fly again. That night he is surprised when a beautiful woman appears at his door and asks to be his wife. “But I am poor,” he replies, “I cannot provide for you.” “Don’t worry,” the beautiful woman tells him and locks herself in a room and begins to weave. She weaves for seven days and seven nights without eating or drinking. Eventually, the woman emerges looking pale and thin but carrying the most beautiful silk cloth the man has ever seen. He sells it at the market for a handsome profit and thanks the woman profusely. “But promise me,” she tells him, “that you will never watch me while I weave.”
Soon the man grows greedy and pleads with his wife to make them an ever bigger piece of cloth. The wife is reluctant but eventually agrees. She weaves for many nights and many days, without drinking or eating. The man becomes overwhelmed with curiosity: how can his wife weave without using thread? Cautiously, he peels back the door and sees not a human being but a crane, smeared in blood. He watches as the crane pulls bloody feathers from its skin and weaves them into an exquisitely patterned cloth. “Yes, I am the crane that you saved and I wanted to repay your kindness by becoming your wife. But now that you have seen my true form, I must leave.” And with that the crane flew away, leaving him the silk cloth to remember her by.
We cross a quietly burbling stream. A lone horse stands in the grasslands behind us. To our left, a small boy picks through tussocks of grass, swinging from his father’s hand. The rest of the valley is still, the predawn hush punctuated only by the distant honking of the cranes. We step off the road towards the birds, seeking out glimpses through the dispersing thickets of fog. Rounding a corner, I draw a quick, involuntary breath: a group of black-necked cranes stands silhouetted against the fog.
The cranes stand impossibly tall, elegant feathered necks stretched towards the skies. Their height and proximity is startling – I am shocked by how vivid and real they are now that they are right here in front of us. For a moment I imagine standing there in the circle with them, a fortuitous human visitor to the celestial world of the cranes, watching as they scratch and fossick through the mud in the gentle morning quiet.
I first became aware of the singular hold that cranes can have on the human imagination when listening to a radio documentary about the plight of the endangered whooping cranes in North America. In the story, a group of scientists and aviators become so deeply attached to the endangered birds that they take to wearing crane costumes and using crane-headed puppets in order to teach the young cranes how to survive. To teach the birds to fly, the scientists wear their costumes while flying ultra-light airplanes which the young cranes learn to follow through the skies as if the planes and the scientists were their natural, biological parents.
After years of devoted parenting, the cranes learn not only how to survive but also how to migrate. The scientists carefully select new breeding and feeding grounds for the birds who follow the ultralight airplanes from their breeding ground in Wisconsin to their summer feeding grounds in Florida more than one thousand miles away. The cranes remember and repeat this migration without guidance and are able to mate and breed in their new breeding grounds, happily, without instructions from humans. But, in a strange twist to this heart-warming tale, often it happens that without warning, these animals who have been bred in captivity by bird-costumed scientists and taught to fly by man made machines, one day walk away from their eggs before the incubation process is complete, leaving their hatchlings without parents to help them to survive.
Arriving in Phobjika the night before, at the end of a jolting, frigid journey, five hours on a local bus up winding narrow switchbacks and over frozen mountain passes, we entered the valley in pitch darkness, guided through the cold by kind locals who showed us to a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse where we would be able to spend the night. We climbed the narrow wooden ladder to the upper floor where a roaring bukhari flooded the dining room with warmth. We ate red rice and ema datsi huddled by the fire, gazing at the beautiful murals of black-necked cranes painted on the mud brick walls. In that short, quiet evening, when we had the entire farmhouse – and, so it seemed, the entire valley – all to ourselves, I had a palpable sense of my proximity to the cranes. Here, I shared the same valley as they did, breathed in the same cold, winter air, fell asleep immersed in the same quiet expansiveness.
In Bhutan, the black-necked crane occupies a very special place in the national psyche. The people of Phobjika believe that when the cranes first arrive in the valley from their mating grounds in Tibet, they circle the famous Gangtey Goempa three times as a mark of their veneration and respect before making their way to the valley floor. So esteemed are the cranes by the people of Phobjika that to avoid them being impeded by overhead wires, the local inhabitants delayed the installation of electricity by two years so that cables could be dug into the ground.
In recent years, an annual festival has been developed to honour the sacredness and conservation of the cranes. School children dress in hand-stitched, black and white costumes and perform dances that mimic the crane’s courting rites – bowing, flapping and jumping – much to the delight of the crowd. Plays are performed to encourage the conservation of the cranes and visitors are welcomed to stay in local farmhouses, giving farmers an extra source of income to compensate for farmland made unavailable by the cranes. At the end of the winter, the cranes, believed by many to be the souls of deceased lamas, are again seen to circle the goempa three times, a final act of devotion before commencing their epic journey back to Tibet.
As the fog lifts, Lucy turns, eyes alight, mouth wide. Through the lifting clouds we see the silhouettes of a group of black-necked cranes rising into the sky, their wings gilded by the rays of the sun. We stare in wonder as they soar above us, their calls resounding around the valley to announce the beginning of the day. We follow them long after they have become specks in the distance, as if watching for the last time the flight of celestial messengers returning to their kingdoms in the sky.