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In the first few weeks of a job I took for two reasons – to travel and receive tuition remission (which wouldn’t deliver either outcome) – I researched species impacted by agriculture: dolphins in China’s Yangtze River, koalas in Australia’s New South Wales and Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska. How little I knew about the connectivity between dwindling habitat and agriculture alarmed me – especially with regard to Sandhill Cranes.

I had never gone out of my way to see the cranes before. Roosting for two or three months on the Platte River – miles from where I grew up – the cranes attract tourists from all over the world. I never thought twice about failing to watch one of the world’s most ancient bird species until I was in college. There I learned Jane Goodall traveled every year to watch the migration in central Nebraska. I didn’t think twice because nobody I knew spoke of the cranes except to harp collectively about the “can’t-drive-to-save-their-lives” tourists who flock to the river with them.

I learned that the Sandhill Cranes’ Platte River habitat, familiar to them for thousands of years, changed dramatically over the past hundred or so years. Plowing the land to establish agriculture altered nearly every acre of wet meadow and tallgrass prairie. Through several hours of reading, I gathered that efforts to restore habitat for the birds suffered setbacks when commodity prices rose, spurring cultivation of land previously set aside for conservation. I checked corn price trends:

$1.47 – 12/13/1966, the day my dad was born

$1.18 – 1/17/1969, the day my mom was born

$2.52 -12/13/1976, my dad’s tenth birthday

$2.79 – 05/01/1985, the month my dad graduated high school

$1.85 – 05/01/1987, the month my mom graduated high school

$2.36 – 10/10/1990, the day my sister was born

$2.31 – 04/02/1993, the day before I was born

$4.71 – 06/11/1996, the dad my brother was born

$2.04 – 10/10/2000, my sister’s tenth birthday

$2.39 – 04/03/2003, my tenth birthday

$2.42 – 06/09/2006, the Friday before my brother’s tenth birthday

$4.14 – 05/01/2009, the month my sister graduated high school

$7.35 – 05/02/2011, the month I graduated high school

$8.25 – 07/16/2012, the highest price I identified since 1959 and the summer after my first year of college

$5.07 – 05/01/2014, the month my brother graduated high school

 

My parents paid for my college tuition. They paid for my car. They paid my rent through college.

I thought of a conversation with my brother years before when I was home from college. I’d read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and felt changed. The fact that our family, farming in central Nebraska for over 130 years, hadn’t lost everything at one point or another was not solely a product of dedication, perseverance and grit. My newfound outlook informed me: Circumstances of time and place along with other uncontrollable, unanticipated factors is what really culminates into someone’s success or failure story: when a person is born, when a war breaks out, if a person has access to a computer terminal when most colleges don’t have access to one (as in the case of a young Bill Gates). Our lives don’t exist in a vacuum. Colby couldn’t be budged: Dad, his father, his father’s father and so on – they would have found a way to prevail regardless of circumstance. Our argument didn’t cease until mom, awoken by our raised voices, sent us to our beds.

My sister, brother and I pose with machinery on a family crop field. Photo by my mom, Tami Spiehs.

Looking from one story on my office computer about cranes to another about corn prices: I felt like the millennial Bill Gates of rural Nebraska. The circumstances enabling my cushy entry into adulthood, with a bachelor’s degree included, were some of the same circumstances distressing the Sandhill Cranes migrating to the Platte River.

I no longer felt distant from my migratory Platte River neighbors. To the contrary, I felt my life and the lives of Sandhill Cranes linked – connected through the resources of land, water and soil surrounding us. We do share a vacuum-less habitat, after all.

PBT co-founder Mike Farrell points toward Sandhill Cranes as a drove takes flight after spending the night roosting on the Platte River near Wood River, Nebraska.

 

In March of this year, I visited the cranes for the first time and shared photos featured in this article with the below caption on Instagram:

“It took nearly 25 years for me to stop and see my migratory Platte River neighbors. As I’m a few days removed from the experience, I feel a change. I can close my eyes and sense their immense presence. I see the blue hues brought by a spring sunrise on the braided river against their grey bodies. I hear the cranes’ mesmeric sounds as they gather to roost. My recount is insignificant, as one needs to see it for themselves. I search for experiences that make me feel small – not insignificant, but experiences that offer me perspective of time and space. This was a pinnacle. One word of advice, whether now or soon: Go.”

 

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” -Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

 

Further reading and sources:

Macro Trends historical corn prices data

Grasslands, wetlands, and agriculture: the fate of land expiring from the Conservation Reserve Program in the Midwestern United States

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