Several passages from Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford Univ. Press, 1949) have become widely known: the one calling for a land ethic, for example, and the one about watching the fierce green fire go out in the eyes of the wolf he had shot when controlling predation. But the passage that resonates most for me involves the "quality" of cranes (quality here carrying its Latinate meaning of what sort of thing something is) from "Marshland Elegy" in Sketches Here and There. Not only do we begin to appreciate the quality of cranes in this wonderfully modulated passage, but we come to mourn their absence.
Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.
This much, though, can be said: our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.
And so they live and have their being--these cranes--not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.