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Big Crane Petroglyph, Comb Ridge   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

The Crane
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

By the time she started walking up the broad slope towards the ridge, the rain had stopped, leaving strings of shallow pools on the slickrock like shiny beads. High above, a massive white dome of the Comb Ridge beckons. She came here again to look for a particular petroglyph. The year before, she had walked up and down this range until exhaustion without finding it. Today, she knew she was getting close.

Just below the ridge top, she spotted an overhanging cliff veneered with deep reddish-brown desert varnish. A good place to find petroglyphs. She climbed onto a long slickrock ramp angling towards that cliff. Part way up the ramp, she found remnants of an ancient dwelling hidden under a shallow alcove. Stones and rubbles, but no petroglyph. She kept walking, searching the reddish cliff face. She had now reached the highest far end but still did not see any markings. Could this be another futile search? Just before she was about to turn around, she looked higher and spotted a concave overhang on the wall some twenty feet above her. In the clamshell bowl under the overhang was the stunning petroglyph of a crane.

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The Crane   Photo  Tim Wong

The crane was rendered in nearly life-size, dark varnish carefully pecked away to unmask clean lines of the underlying pink sandstone. Its long neck stretched tall, powerful beak tilted to the side, wings spread out like an unfolded fan, displaying the long flight feathers. Its long legs appeared in motion, one in front of the other as if stepping out from the cliff face. Every stroke was concise and deliberate, truly a masterpiece by an ancient artist. Under its left wing lay a mysterious round orb encased by a circle. Could that be her egg? The sun or a full moon? While pondering those questions, she remembered a Native American legend about the crane and the moon. Long ago, the rabbit asked the crane to take him to the moon. The crane made the long journey with the rabbit hanging on its legs. Ever since, the rabbit could be seen on the full moon, and the crane’s legs were permanently elongated.

 

She sat on a rock under the crane looking out over the vast landscape. The crane was the only petroglyph along the entire hundred-foot-long rock canvas. Its location was obviously carefully chosen. From that high perch, she had a commanding view of the canyon below and Comb Wash far to the east. The year before, while searching for the petroglyph, she discovered ruins of an Anasazi dwelling under an alcove higher up that ridge. The crane watched over a narrow slickrock gangway that accessed the ridge-top from the canyon below. What inspired the ancient artist to make the crane petroglyph? Native Americans considered cranes a sign of good fortune and happiness. She let her thoughts roam.

When she was a little girl in Japan, she used to fold paper cranes, a symbol of hope and peace. After living oversea for decades, she no longer remembered how to fold one. When her father died, an older Japanese friend made her a pair of cranes, joined seamlessly as if flying together wingtip to wingtip, folded from a single piece of paper. She hung that origami above her desk, never figured out how it was made, it brought her comfort.

The following year, she made a trip to Bosque de Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, where tens of thousands of sandhill cranes spent the winter. One chilly morning, as the sun pierced through a misty veil over the marshland, a cloud of sandhill cranes lifted off from the water edge. The birds circled around and around, gaining height in the rising thermos. More and more cranes joined the gyrating circle, as if sucked in by a slow-moving twister, jostling for position and bugling raucously. She tilted her head back to watch the mass of flapping feathers rising higher and higher, white wings flashing in the dawn light, until they faded into tiny white specks among the high clouds, their croaking barely audible. Suddenly, as if following some primordial order, the circle tore apart, pulled into a wide wedge trailing two lengthening arms of stragglers, heading straight to the north.

 

A peaceful smile spread across her face. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, knowing spring had arrived.

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Sandhill Cranes, Dawn   Photo  Tim Wong