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My Crane Wife

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

crane.jpg

At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in northern Virginia, a rare crane named Walnut imprinted at a young age on a human keeper. This made it impossible for her to mate with other cranes; she soon acquired a reputation for killing any males who tried to court her. Surprisingly, she instead was able to produce by courting with, mating, and bonding for life with another human zoo worker, who now dances and simulates copulation with her even when they’re not trying to reproduce. It’s a weird and amazing story.

When Crowe stopped by her yard, she would bow her head and raise her wings — motions that Crowe now recognizes as the first moves of a mating dance. “At first, I thought that she was just excited to see me,” Crowe says. “But then I’d see the other pairs doing the same things, and it kind of dawned on me.” Crowe accepted Walnut’s invitation to dance. Though he felt a little silly, he bobbed his head when Walnut bobbed hers, and raised and lowered his arms like wings. The two circled each other, and sometimes Walnut would make a loud, trumpeting call — the beginning of the white-naped crane love duet. If no one was around, Crowe would try to do the male part of the song — making a Homer Simpson-like “woo-hoo” — but Walnut never found his efforts satisfactory….

Captive cranes can live past 60 years old, which means Crowe’s commitment to Walnut could, in theory, last decades. “If she’s still here when I’m eligible for retirement, I won’t be able to leave,” he says. “I’d feel like a jerk.” Another male keeper — and Walnut clearly prefers men to women — might be able to woo her if Crowe were to disappear. But, as Crowe has seen with his other cranes, the loss of a mate is traumatic. Widowed cranes stop eating and fill the air with mournful calls, sometimes for weeks on end.

It’s unlikely that Walnut will be called on to produce more chicks, but Crowe continues to dance with her and even “mate” with her when she asks. It’s a strange job, but Crowe says he’s used to getting teased at this point. “I’ve heard every joke,” he says, and then shares his favorite: “What’s the difference between erotic and kinky? Erotic, you use a feather. Kinky, you use the whole bird.”

The whole thing reminds me of The Decemberists’ song “The Crane Wife,” and “Tsuru no Ongaeshi,” the Japanese folk tale it’s based on.

Once upon a time, there lived an elderly couple in a certain place. On a snowy day in winter, the old man was going to town to sell firewood, when he found a crane that was caught in a hunter’s trap. Feeling sorry, he released the bird from the trap. That night while the snow fell violently, a beautiful girl came to the couple’s house. According to her explanation, ever since her parents died, she had been traveling between relatives she had never met before, when she got lost and as a result would like to stay for one night. The couple heartily welcomed her into their home. The snow had not quite stopped the next day, and the day after that, as the girl remained in the house of the elderly couple. Meanwhile, the girl tirelessly took care of the couple, making them happy. One day, the girl asked the couple, instead of sending her off to meet relatives she had never met before, to please make her their daughter. The elderly couple was delighted to accept.

As she continued to help the old couple, one day she requested: “I would like to weave a cloth, so please buy me yarn”. When she was handed the purchased yarn, she stated: “Please don’t ever look in the room.” to the couple; then hid in the room, and wove for three days straight without a break. “Sell this, and buy me more yarn”, she told the couple. The cloth was very beautiful, and became the talk of the town immediately, and sold for a good price. With the new thread that was bought with the new money, their daughter wove another fabric with stunning workmanship, selling at a higher price and making the elderly couple wealthy.

However, when she confined herself to the room to weave a third piece, while the couple persevered in keeping the promise at first, they began to wonder how she wove such beautiful cloth. Unable to fight curiosity, the old lady took a peek inside. Where there should have been a girl was a crane. The crane plucked its own feathers to weave between the threads to produce a glittering cloth. Large portions of the wing had already been plucked out, leaving the crane in a pitiful state. In front of the shocked elderly couple, the daughter who finished weaving approached them, confessing that she was the crane that was saved. While she had intended to remain their daughter, she had to leave, as her true identity has been discovered. She turned back into a crane and flew into the sky, leaving behind the remorseful elderly couple.