In an essay called Marshland Elegy, Aldo Leopold described the trumpeting pandemonium of the annual arrival of sandhill cranes near his shack in Wisconsin. When we hear the call of this most ancient of birds, he wrote, “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.”
The daily affairs of men give Hank Lentfer cause for despair and withdrawal, hope and renewal, in his memoir, Faith of Cranes (Mountaineers 2011). At first, Hank seems paralyzed by existential angst. You can feel his hands wringing as he frets about the future of the home he has built in Gustavus, the sandhill cranes that pass by in their annual pilgrimages, the Arctic Refuge and other wild lands, the special island out in Icy Strait that he loves, and all the other wonderful things, places and people in his life.
Will the encroaching flood of progress destroy all that he holds dear? Then paralysis gives way to frenetic energy as he plunges into save-the-world environmental leadership, only to crash against the frustration of fighting fruitless battles. The island, he says, “is an up and down place.” It would take “a couple lifetimes” to explore its interior. Much the same could be said for Hank himself.
This is all set against the dawn of a new generation as Hank awaits the arrival of life’s most precious gift. A letter he writes to his unborn child, even before conception, is a prayer of sorrow, hope, joy and love. His writing is graceful, lyrically beautiful, each word fitting into place like there was no possible alternative. Hank is far more eloquent than most expectant fathers, but the roller coaster emotions he feels are familiar to anyone who has trod that path. What kind of world will we bequeath to our children, and theirs?
And like many fathers, perhaps all the fathers tracing back through timeless eons of evolution, like the cranes themselves, he wishes more for his child than for himself. Not in the sense of greater accumulation of material goods, but that she may come to find beauty in the world even if the paradise of southeast Alaska is lost, even “should those cranes and wolves be silenced.”
After all the self-doubt and the ups and downs, Hank eventually finds hope in the process of life, quoting Viktor Frankl’s search for meaning, even in the midst of the horrors of the Holocaust, in “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” As his young daughter grows, Hank returns to activism, not because he thinks he can save the world but because “it is the act of speaking itself that matters.”
Hank’s environmental leadership is an integral part of who he is, as natural as the migratory instinct of the cranes he holds so dear. As in the Gita, meaning derives from the rightness of the action, not from the result; it comes from being a link in an unbroken chain of voices sharing the same commitment and passion. “I now believe even the extinction of cranes cannot render efforts at conservation irrelevant anymore than the death of a soldier can strip meaning from calls for peace.”
Faith of Cranes is an inspiring account of a man who lives close to nature and stays true to his own nature. If any man can be said to be a product of place, it is Hank Lentfer. He reflects the environment of his southeast Alaska home like a fine wine embodies the terroir of its origin. He is a wild man at home in a wild place, fighting to keep it that way.