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An American Journey

By Dilip D’Souza Email By Dilip D’Souza
June 2010
An American Journey

Audacity—The Spirit of a Nation

There’s a song that plays when I think about the U.S., when I travel through it: a song about audacity, and it started a long time ago.

In the early seventies, my mother went to the American Center in Mumbai (then Bombay) to hear a couple of young scientists, George Archibald and Ron Sauey, talk about cranes. Specifically, they discussed their plans to save several endangered species of cranes. My mother was so impressed with their knowledge and zeal that she spoke to them afterwards. That began years of correspondence with Sauey.

Back in the States, Sauey and Archibald established the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. Through my teenage years, manila packets addressed to my ma would arrive regularly at home, for she had agreed to distribute the ICF newsletter in India.

It always filled me with wonder that there was actually an entire Foundation devoted to these elegant birds, in this far off land with the slightly exotic name of Wisconsin. Some day, I promised myself, I’m going to visit this place.

Well, it took me over 30 years. One day in September 2008, weeks into a road trip through the American Midwest, I found myself barreling down the road to Baraboo, Wisconsin, home to the ICF. In the middle of gently rolling farmland, I parked in front of a small building, behind which were several large enclosures for the birds.

The first thing I did was call my mother to say, I’m here where I should have been 30 years ago. She was delighted. I don’t know if she heard them from half the world away, but the cranes were screaming in the background. Maybe they were delighted too.

And then I roamed the ICF, admiring several handsome cranes of various species. Among them were Majnu and Chandni, Sarus cranes from India. Six feet tall, with an 8-foot wingspan, Sarus cranes are the world’s tallest flying birds.

That was all fun, and the birds were charming, if somewhat noisy. But then I walked into the enclosure for the American whooping cranes. There was one gorgeous white bird there, only a few dozen feet from where I stood, preening and grooming itself. For various reasons, their population had dropped, and there was some serious doubt about their survival. So the ICF has been breeding them in an effort to save the bird. While they managed to breed these birds in captivity, crane researchers ran into problems they could not easily solve — for these are migratory birds. If you bring them up in captivity, they don’t know how to migrate. And the seasonal imperative of migration is the key to their survival.

So what’s to be done? The researchers at ICF actually set out to teach whooping cranes how to migrate. Simple as that.

I watched a video that featured the researchers dressed as cranes, complete with hoods and gloves painted to resemble crane body parts. This was so that the young birds could get used to their presence during that window in their lives when they form parental bonds. That done, they got the birds to fly behind a tiny aircraft piloted by one of the crane-suited mother figures. In this manner, they eventually had the birds flying behind that tiny aircraft for 1200 miles: along the migratory route of whooping cranes, from Wisconsin to Florida. On the way, they stopped in the backyards of families who later spoke to the camera, bemused and amused by this invasion of birds and plane.

And the birds learned. Because when the season turned in Florida in April, they returned on their own to Wisconsin, to where they started from.

So I stood near the preening whooping crane, absorbing all this. My thoughts turned to my management friends. These guys talk about something they call BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals. This is one more of those infernal management acronyms. Setting BHAGs apparently helps organizations find direction, grow and prosper. Whatever it might mean in the corporate world, consider the goal the crane researchers set for themselves here: the idea of teaching another species something as fundamental and instinctive as migration.

Talk about audacity. There’s a certain spirit here, almost an audacity of the imagination.

For me, driving through the States, it’s like a theme song. Sung in substantial contralto here, soaring soprano there, booming bass elsewhere, it tells a story of gumption: the moxie, the chutzpah, of turning vague ideas into bold reality. Teaching cranes to migrate!

But there was more. More than merely migrating cranes.

I was first fascinated by the Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area between Lake Barley in Tennessee and Kentucky Lake in Kentucky, since a brief, appetite-whetting previous trip, twenty years earlier. I remember birds rising through a quilt of mist laid on the river, I remember the landscape reduced to soft silhouettes by the late afternoon sun, black and shimmering in the viewfinder of my Contax.

So “LBL again” has been a mantra of mine for years, and this time when I went, I was struck by the story of the bison you see there. At LBL, they are trying to do two things: recreate the prairie that once sprawled in these states, and rescue bison and elk from extinction by raising captive herds. “The Elk and Bison Prairie,” says an LBL board, “shows how this land appeared during the time of Daniel Boone.”

Only in America? Don’t just set aside land for a refuge, but actually transport it back a couple of hundred years.

The bison herd, 32 strong, is grazing as I draw up in my car. Engine off and not much more than a forearm’s length from one animal, I settle in to watch. A quiet sound slowly works into my consciousness. At first I think of it as gusts of soft wind through the trees. But soon I know that can’t be right; instead, it’s the sound the nearest animal is making with his jaw. Munch, chew, munch, grazing the prairie one mouthful at a time.

Later, on a hike in the northern reaches of the park, my thoughts remain with the bison. There are a few things about America that I remember reading about, going back to my youth. One of them is the bison. The notion of vast herds of these beasts thundering over open prairie, this seemingly limitless bonanza of meat and hide, is a good one to chew on as I meander through the trees.

Bison numbers will never be back up to vast-herd levels. Kentucky and Tennessee and so many other states will never return to being the expansive prairie they once were, and bison meat and hide are of no commercial importance today. So you may well ask, why bother with this small captive herd of bison? Why care about restoring a small patch of land to the way it once was? After all, it’s not as if the country will be seriously and adversely affected if these things are not done.

So why do them?

The only answers that make sense run oddly parallel to what a climber called Mallory once said. Why climb Everest, they asked him. Because, replied Mallory, it is there. Why save the bison? Because it was once here. Why restore the prairie? Because it, too, was once here.

This American theme, daring and doing, pops up again and again.

Consider the “causeway” into New Orleans. In effect a bridge, it arrows long and straight and for 25 miles across Lake Pontchartrain, the near-circular body of water just north of the city. For fifteen miles in the middle, I can see no land in any direction including in my rear-view mirror. What I see instead is the road stretching ahead, cars to the left of me, cars to the right—as if we are on a joint quest for something to hold on to in this great sparkling sheet of water.

It’s not unusual, I’m sure, to remark on the awe you feel in the middle of a long bridge. But it masks the audacity of the original thought: let’s fling a road thirty miles across this water — across this water that, from its middle, offers no hint of a break.

Or take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel in Virginia. The Bay is a watery wedge driven between the states of Maryland and Virginia on the west, and the “eastern shore” on the east. The eastern shore is a jagged-edge peninsula, Delmarva, named for Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, the three states that claim parts of the peninsula. To travel from Virginia Beach, on the southern lip of the bay, to the southern tip of Delmarva is perhaps 25 miles for a crow. But if you’re merely human, it was once a journey of several hundred miles, long and laborious, around the bay. Which set somebody thinking, why not a bridge across the mouth of the bay, so we can cross as a crow would? (Meaning straight, not aloft.)

The bay is one of the world’s great shipping channels, so a bridge cannot close it off. Yet maybe it is impractical to make the bridge high enough for large ships to pass underneath, and maybe a drawbridge in the middle would be too slow, both for ships and cars. What’s the answer?

Easy: the bridge turns into a tunnel turns into a bridge. Twice in that 25-mile stretch, the road actually disappears underwater. Seen from the air, long fingers snake out from either shore. Lonesome in between, a shadow of the fingers, is a span by itself.

I’ve driven this marvel twice; both times I’ve felt an involuntary chill as we burrowed into the tunnels at 55. The sea above me: what a thought, what a measure of chutzpah.

And then take the narrow offshore island called Hatteras in North Carolina. Where the island angles north, at Cape Hatteras, you’ll find a lighthouse. Built to warn ships nearing this so-called “Graveyard of the Atlantic” — hundreds of vessels have sunk off these Carolina Outerbank islands — the lighthouse originally stood 1600 feet from the shore. Over a century, the sea eroded that to a mere 100 feet, most of it a sandy beach. By the late 1990s, a beloved landmark was in grave danger. But what could be done?

Easy again: in 1999, a team of engineers moved the lighthouse.

That’s right, they moved it. Not brick by disassembled brick, but whole. The entire 200 foot tall structure, all 4400 tons of it. Over three weeks that year, managing as much as a few hundred feet on some days, they shifted the thing fully half a mile, to where it once again stands 1600 feet from the shore. Proud, tall, undamaged, secure again.

The audacity of such a move, the will to make it real.

Yet with these examples, I mean no unthinking paean to American ingenuity and initiative, not at all. For these flights of near-impertinence only remind me of so many others—the Chunnel, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, penicillin, a telescope in space, flight itself.

We live in cynical times. We are polarized on many lines, suspicious of politicians’ motives, guarded about our children’s’ safety in an uncertain world, worried about water quality and terrorism and unpredictable violence. My own country is a boom economy, filled with confidence and a flowering of aspirations suppressed too long; but bombs go off on trains, terrorists attack a city, and Indians slaughter other Indians. Whether it’s Bollywood or our crop of billionaires, India has captured the world’s imagination in many ways; but a woman at Atlanta airport leaned over to ask: “Why do I see so much poverty in India?” Ups have their downs.

Cynicism comes easy. So I like to go in search of what I think of as its opposite: audacity. I like to be reminded of the potential in us all. I mean, moving a lighthouse. Restoring a prairie. Think of it.

But there’s one final facet in this story, and it carries the likeness of my friend Ollie Taylor.

“Monet,” says Ollie when I meet him in Annapolis. “You know Monet’s paintings? Well, I see things sort of like that.”

Not that I can name even a single Monet, but I know immediately what he means: sort of blurry, soft-focus. Ollie has macular degeneration.

His eyesight has deteriorated so much that he can see only large block-printed letters, and those only close-up. The rest? Like a Monet.

I’ve long admired Ollie’s sharp and brilliant mind. He reads widely and plays drums in an amateur swing/jazz band. Some years ago, I took him to a cricket match in Mumbai. He wrote to his wife that the precision and grace he saw that day reminded him of ballet, a description that endeared him no end to this cricket fan.

But while I’m saddened that he will never delight in cricket field ballets again, Ollie himself is irrepressible. For starters, he is almost tickled by the Monet comparison. He drums for me, plies me with questions about me, my career, India, Pakistan, offers me the most thoughtful analysis of American politics I’ve heard in months. At 77, he is about to start a new job working in a nursery, doing the physical labor of moving trees and plants about. To get in shape, he rows and walks the treadmill every day. “I just love working with my hands,” he answers my curiosity. “Always have.”

But the thing that most mocks my sense of sorrow at his condition is a cordless phone that hangs around his neck. Every day, he dials a number, punches in a few digits, and then goes about his walking or gardening or whatever else. Via the speaker on the instrument, his selection of favorite newspapers and magazines is read to him. It’s a telephone reader service, and it is entirely free, down to the telephone call.

I know about books on tape, but this takes my breath away. Watching Ollie, I marvel again at all that’s available in this country, which makes life easier.

But then I wonder: is the US a rich country because it has wealth? Or because of how it chooses to spend its wealth? Or do those choices themselves contribute, tangibly or otherwise, to the generation of wealth? Is it because this is a “developed” country that it can imagine moving a lighthouse, or teaching migration to cranes? Or is it the choice to provide Ollie his reader service, the choice to rescue the bison and restore a tract of land, that makes it developed?

On this trail in LBL, little blue tags nailed to trees show me the way. Inevitably, they are also opportunity for graffiti. One carries a laboriously scratched message that fits right in with the trails my mind has taken today. “WANNA GOOD FAIRY TALE?” it asks. The response: “TRUST JESUS.”

For the audacious, there’s backhanded but good advice. The miracles are the ones we ourselves create, in the here and now. The rest? Fairy tales.

[Dilip D’souza is the author of “Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America,” published by Harper Collins India. This article contains excerpts from the book]

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