This River Beneath the Sky reads like an ode to sandhill cranes in the style of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. How fitting. Leopold was born in Iowa but produced his seminal work of ecological prose in Wisconsin. Doreen Pfost was likewise a transplant on the sandy banks of Nebraska’s Platte River.
Pfost moved to south-central Nebraska with her husband’s career. She admits an initial lack of appreciation for her new home. To escape a depressive funk, she began volunteering at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary between Grand Island and Kearney—a place of crucial importance to sandhill crane conservation and tourism—situated along the Platte River, a “dreary, inconstant river that as if through lack of initiative, followed the route of the interstate system.”
Her initial attitude soon changes. Pfost embraces fly-over country and comes to perceive the central Platte as a sort of essential “airport” hub on the bustling Central Flyway Migration Corridor. Her ensuing book is a beautiful work of woven memoir, ecology, journalism, history, and literature braided together (much like the braided stream of the Platte where Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart met her demise. Pfost even refers to Leopold and Cather alike.)
The bugling hubbub of sandhill cranes ignites Pfost’s passion for the once-seemingly dreary landscape: “This is how spring arrives at the Platte—not with the flip of a calendar page, but from the little clouds blown in on a southerly wind,” she writes of the cranes’ springtime arrival, which quickly amplifies from a “sprinkle” to a torrential “shower.”
She vividly captures the cranes’ sunrise wakeup call at the peak of their layover, a raucous tumult that echoes across the horizon as tens of thousands of large birds simultaneously burst from sandbar roosts midstream and blacken the sky before landing in nearby cornfields to refuel on grubs and grains.
Pfost’s book is organized into 12 chapters corresponding roughly to the calendar. Her first chapter concludes with an afternoon departure of cranes for Arctic summering grounds and a call for environmental stewardship: “The cranes will go north—for now—and those of us who stay behind will keep an eye on the river.”
Throughout most of her book, sandhill cranes are absent in seasonal migrations to the north or south. Yet their presence always seems near, even when Pfost is writing about bison, whooping cranes, bobolinks, or annelids. After the cranes’ departure from the Platte, Pfost mulls over the history of pioneer trails, human settlement along the river, and the taming of the once-unpredictable river to meet incessant water demands from hydroelectric power, reservoirs, and agriculture.
Pfost’s earnest dedication to botanical and zoological minutiae emerges in rich descriptions of the environment while she hikes and jogs along the river. Also fascinating are anecdotes of people-watching at the Rowe Sanctuary, where “gossamer threads” bind birdwatchers and cranes along the “wild, dancing stream that used to be.”
River Beneath the Sky follows a journalistic path providing the backstory of sandhill crane conservation in Nebraska, its necessary infrastructure projects, local grassroots opposition, and the families of homesteaders, concluding, appropriately, with the close of another migratory passing of sandhill cranes through the Rowe Sanctuary. The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website reveals that Pfost has migrated onward, now living in Wisconsin and giving tours at the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm—a site of resurgent sandhill crane populations some 80 years after Leopold mused about the birds’ potential extinction. Although a migrant in Nebraska, much of Pfost’s writing resonates with my sense of personal connection to ancestors who homesteaded along the Platte and the sandhill cranes’ primordial staging grounds.
When I first read her book in the spring, sandhill cranes were passing through Nebraska in record number. Yet I was stuck in Omaha, the place of my birth, with the cranes’ cacophonous chorus echoing in my memory from past trips to the river.
The Platte may not be visible from my home in urban Omaha, as the river curves south and around the city to meet the Missouri, yet I am always drawn to its presence. It nurtured my maternal ancestors, immigrants from Germany, and it nurtured me on childhood visits to the family farm.
In 2014, I had proposed to my wife after a trip to view the sandhill cranes at the Rowe Sanctuary. Like Pfost, my wife is a newcomer to Nebraska. Sometimes Nebraska can be difficult to appreciate through all four seasons. With the gift of this book, I hope the author’s enthusiasm may be contagious.
A version of this review was originally published in the summer 2017 edition of Western American Literature (Vol. 52, No. 2), the journal of the Western Literature Association published by University of Nebraska Press.
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. Read author Doreen Pfost’s new essay about sandhill cranes also in the issue: “A Gathering of Water & Cranes: How Sandhill Cranes Unite Residents And Travelers Along Migratory Routes.”