BIRDS! Finally, after a bit of a drought, we have birds! The very first paragraphs of The Echo Maker by Richard Powers include some wonderful descriptions of the sandhill cranes that migrate through Nebraska each year, stopping along the Platte River, and feeding on the remains of the harvested field corn and soybeans.

They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk. Scores of Grus canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.

This first description not only gives us the Latin name, but also the collective noun–kettle–as well as alerting us to Powers’ use of the occasional odd descriptor: “the air red with calls.” There are definitely some unusual word choices throughout the book. Some of them seemed spot on, but occasionally they seemed a bit forced to me–like it’s his trademark so he felt he had to add one but he couldn’t come up with anything that really worked. They can be very attention-grabbing, though, even when they don’t quite work.

A neck stretches long; legs drape behind. Wings curl forward, the length of a man. Spread like fingers, primaries tip the bird into the wind’s plane. The blood-red head bows and the wings sweep together, a cloaked priest giving benediction. Tail cups and belly buckles, surprised by the upsurge of ground. Legs kick out, their backward knees flapping like broken landing gear. Another bird plummets and stumbles forward, fighting for a spot in the packed staging ground along those few miles of water still clear and wide enough to pass as safe.

There are several vague references to the birds dancing, and I found videos on YouTube of this, including this lovely one posted by Nancy J Wagner Photography. When I lived in Wisconsin, we got a trickle of this migration, but nothing like the numbers Powers is describing.

Half a million birds–four-fifths of all the sandhill cranes on earth–home in on this river. They trace the Central Flyway, an hourglass laid over the continent. They push up from New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, hundreds of miles each day, with thousands more ahead before they reach their remembered nests. For a few weeks, this stretch of river shelters the miles-long flock. Then, by the start of spring, they’ll rise and head away, feeling their way up to Saskatchewan, Alaska, or beyond.

The Crane Trust has a wonderful promotional video that gives some beautiful views of the cranes and a little better idea of the numbers; it’s about 8 minutes, and quite nice.

I love they way Powers compares them to dinosaurs in this description:

In this light, something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter-step away from pterodactyls. As darkness falls for real, it’s a beginner’s world again, the same evening as that day sixty million years ago when this migration began.

He also talks, through a character who is an environmentalist and birder (and later, through Karin), about conservation issues–that the cranes have traditionally used that area of the Platte River because of the flatlands that form the extended banks. Long before the pioneers arrived, the area was grasslands–open and safe; as America’s Heartland and Breadbasket, the corn and soy fields lie empty at the end of winter when the cranes arrive, and have the added bonus of being a food source. But, as more trees are planted, and family farms are sold to developers who build structures, with more trees, the area of the river that is suitable for the cranes’ stop-over is shrinking.

We don’t really think about the trees, but they just weren’t there on the Plains until people brought them. Both Haven’s Wake and The Meaning of Names mention their farming families having planted groves or lines of trees on their property, painstakingly watering them until the roots developed enough for them to survive. The Echo Maker mentions the family planting a sycamore tree. “Those fool Schluter men, planting a big water-sucking tree, when they don’t even have water table enough to keep their beans from getting singed.”

And with the trees and the people, the water usage along the river has increased dramatically, leaving the river incredibly shallow–just a few inches deep in many areas. I live in southern California, where water usage and the legal and political battles surrounding water are commonplace, and of course that was a main theme from Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War, but I honestly did not expect this theme in our Nebraska reading. There is also discussion of more complicated and subtle threats–developments catering to the “crane peepers” tourism trade, which, ostensibly, are on the conservation and environmental protection side, but which, when one looks at their true environmental impact, may not be so good for the cranes. They raise awareness, and they may try to minimize their impact, but their very existence increases land and water usage and increases tourism, which can be a double-edged sword in itself. Plus, the tourist/crane season is very short–how do those businesses survive for the rest of the year?

Powers also mentions the whooping crane, which was brought back from the very brink of extinction, due to the efforts of organizations like one that I loved to visit when we lived in Wisconsin–the International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo, Wisconsin (in south-central Wisconsin, north of Madison).

And, as we saw in Kansas, there’s plenty of bleakness:

The man in the picture held half of his library–either Pilgrim’s Progress or the Bible: the photo was too blurry to tell. On the mud wall of the soddie behind him, dangling from a stag’s antler, hung a gilded birdcage, purchased out east at great expense and dragged a thousand miles overland in an oxcart, taking up precious cargo space that might have stored tools or medicines. The birdcage was more urgent. The body could survive any isolation. Then there was the mind.

Now residents had a cage still more gilded: cheap broadband. The Internet had hit Nebraska like liquor hitting a Stone Age tribe–the godsend every sandhills homesteader descendant had been waiting for, the only way to survive such vacancy… The Net: a last-ditch cure for prairie blindness.

From here the text goes into a mini-rant against online gaming, with a little bit mixed in about chat-rooms and conspiracy theory blogs. Actually, the conspiracy theory bit runs through the whole book as Mark becomes increasingly paranoid and his brain struggles to compensate for the damage done in the accident.

And there’s this fantastic (and bleak) description of Kearney:

A business district hosed for as far into the future as anyone could see. Falling commodities prices, rising unemployment, aging population, youth flight, family farms selling out to agribusiness for dirt and change: geography had decided Mark’s fate long before his birth. Only the doomed stayed to collect.

Childhood memories with the occasional lesson built in for us outsiders appear as well–such as the fact that bull snakes eat rats, and farmers might like to have them around to keep the rats from eating the stored grain.

“You remember the bull snake in the barn?” she asked him. His eyes flickered, watching the idea of the creature. “You must have been nine. Took a stick and killed it all by yourself. Protecting everyone. Went to Cappy and bragged, and he beat the shit out of you. ‘You just cost us eight hundred dollars’ worth of grain. Don’t you know what those creatures eat? What have you got for brains, boy?’ Last snake you ever killed.”

While Haven’s Wake gave us some insight into Mennonite beliefs–especially their strong belief in charity, making contributions (and missions) all over the world–we get a few insights into what might be more “standard” religious beliefs in The Echo Maker.

Back in the waiting room, she witnessed eight middle-aged men in flannel standing in a ring, their slow eyes scanning the floor. A murmur issued from them, wind teasing the lonely screens of a farmhouse. The sound rose and fell in waves. It took her a moment to realize: a prayer circle, for another victim who’d come in just after Mark. A makeshift Pentecostal service, covering anything that scalpels, drugs, and lasers couldn’t.

Overall, though, this book was a struggle for me. All the brain function theory and impact hit a little too close to home for me right at this moment in my life–my mom is entering the later stages of Alzheimer’s, and my son with high-functioning autism is not getting the support he needs at school which has given him an anxiety disorder. I’ve gotten way too familiar with brain function–if Gerald Weber were a real author I’d probably have read all his books in the last couple of months–and my own anxiety has been too high to make this book a much-needed escape.

But the cranes helped–it turns out the “echo maker” of the title actually refers to the cranes. “One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes—Ajijak or Businassee—the Echo Makers.” The Anishinaabe refers to a number of culturally related indigenous peoples, including the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Algonquin. “Crow and Cheyenne carved cranes’ leg bones into hollow flutes, echoing the echo maker.” There’s more–bits of crane mythology from all over the world.

At times, Powers’ research comes through in the novel as exactly that–a wide array of somewhat-related facts clumped together in an “I don’t know how to weave these interesting facts into the novel so I’ll just throw them out here” kind of way. The connections between the cranes and indigenous people felt like that. Some of the brain stuff felt that way too–especially the bits and pieces from Weber’s books (although that was kind of the style and premise of his books, so it could have been either way–Powers developed Weber because he had all these cool brain stories he wanted to share, or Powers developed Weber as the brain expert author and then had to find all the stories to flesh him out).

One other aspect that I was surprised by (and empathized with, which made the reading that much more uncomfortable), was the character of Karin and the identity crisis she goes through as a result of her identity being rejected by Mark. By the end of the story she seems to be doing almost as much doubling (or echo-making) as Mark is, playing multiple roles, with multiple people, unsure how to refer to herself, either in memory or in the present, when Mark refuses to acknowledge her as his sister Karin.

It was an interesting book. It was very well-written, and made me curious about other books by Richard Powers–I’ve added The Time of Our Singing and Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance to my Want to Read list. I really wish that I had read this at a different time in my life; I feel I didn’t get as much out of it as I might have if it had felt more removed from my life. (Much like when I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking shortly after the death my mother-in-law. I was hoping it would be therapeutic, but it was just too raw.)

It was definitely a great addition to my challenge–it hits Nebraska perfectly. From the wonderful crane descriptions to the bleak economics to the conspiracy theorists and religious fanatics. I’ve been thinking about what we’ve read from Kansas and from Nebraska. If you’ve been following my journey, you know that after reading Kansas I was somewhat dissatisfied–there seemed to be a lot of bleakness and a fair bit of mean-spirited and prejudiced behavior, and not a whole lot of redeeming qualities. My main feeling about Kansas after the books I read was that I really didn’t want to go there. I wondered if I would find those same characteristics in other Plains states, and I decided to follow up with Nebraska. So… how does Nebraska compare? Honestly, I’m not sure. As a birder, I’m enticed by the crane migration, and those descriptions certainly flavor my views of the state now. But I’m not sure I’d really want to spend a vacation there–especially at the end of February (incidentally, the date of Mark’s crash–February 20–happens to be my parents’ anniversary).

I think what I’ve seen in the Nebraska books that was, perhaps, missing from the Kansas books is the quirkiness. People often talk about the quirkiness of the characters in various southern novels that endear them to the reader in spite of the underlying racism of the region (and yes, I know I’m making huge generalizations here). In Kansas, we didn’t really see that (Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest is the exception). The Kansas characters were mostly regular folks. Even the ones in Mandelbaum’s Bad Kansas collection were overshadowed by the bleakness and not really presented as “the local character.” And, I’d have to say that The Echo Maker mostly falls into this category as well–it’s the crane migration that really provides the endearing local flavor, not the people. The people are much like Mandelbaum’s Kansans. But Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos was full of quirky characters. Randolph’s Haven’s Wake was as well, or at least it had just enough hope to offset the bleakness.

So, I’ve finished three from Nebraska (I’ll get a review up for Sing Them Home soon), and this one has taken much, much longer than usual. I haven’t touched my young readers’ pick–Ivy Ruckman’s Night of the Twisters–and I’m partway through The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker. I’ve also picked up a copy of My Ántonia by Willa Cather that I found at a local Little Free Library (and it was actually discussed by Mark and Barbara in The Echo Maker!), but haven’t started it yet. Frankly, I’m getting rather overwhelmed by all the bleakness (real-life and book), so I’m really not sure that I want to continue with Nebraska past the Shoemaker book, though I’m tempted by Once Upon a Town or Local Wonders, which were both on my list of alternates as more uplifting options. Stay tuned…

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Birds, Books, Setting


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