The biologist himself, inching toward the cranes, alone in his waders, didn't look as if he felt any embarrassment. It was simply his job to try to keep the whooping crane from going extinct. And this job, in one sense, was fairly hopeless. There were currently fewer than 350 wild whooping cranes on the planet, and although the figure was definitely an improvement on the 1941 population of 22, the long-term outlook for any species with such a small gene pool was dismal. The entire Aransas reserve was one melted Greenland ice cap away from being suitable for waterskiing, one severe storm away from being a killing field. Nevertheless, as Captain Moore cheerfully informed us, scientists had been taking eggs from the cranes' nests in western Canada and incubating them in Florida, where there was now a wholly manufactured second flock of more than thirty birds, and since whooping cranes don't naturally know the way to migrate (each new generation learns the route by following its parents), scientists had been trying to teach the cranes in Florida to follow an airplane to a second summering site in Wisconsin...

To know that something is doomed and to cheerfully try to save it anyway: it was a characteristic of my mother. I had finally started to love her near the end of her life, when she was undergoing a year of chemotherapy and radiation and living by herself. I'd admired her bravery for that. I'd admired her will to recuperate and her extraordinary tolerance of pain. I'd felt proud when her sister remarked to me, "Your mother looks better two days after abdominal surgery than I do at a dinner party." I'd admired her skill and ruthlessness at the bridge table, where she wore the same determined frown when she had everything under control as when she knew she was going down. The last decade of her life, which started with my father's dementia and ended with her colon cancer, was a rotten hand that she played like a winner. Even toward the end, though, I couldn't tolerate being with her for more than three days at a time. Although she was my last living link to a web of Midwestern relations and traditions that I would begin to miss the moment she was gone, and although the last time I saw her in her house, in April 1999, her cancer was back and she was rapidly losing weight, I still took care to arrive in St. Louis on a Friday afternoon and leave on a Monday night. She, for her part, was accustomed to my leavings and didn't complain too much. But she still felt about me what she'd always felt, which was what I wouldn't really feel about her until after she was gone. "I hate it when Daylight Savings Time starts while you're here," she told me while we were driving to the airport, "because it means I have an hour less with you."

As the Skimmer moved up the channel, we were able to approach other cranes close enough to hear them crunching on blue crabs, the staple of their winter diet. We saw a pair doing the prancing, graceful, semiairborne dance that gets them sexually excited. Following the lead of my fellow passengers, I took out my camera and dutifully snapped some pictures. But all of a sudden—it might have been my having reached the empty plateau of four hundred species—I felt weary of birds and birding. For the moment at least, I was ready to be home in New York again, home among my kind. Every happy day with the Californian made the dimensions of our future losses a little more grievous, every good hour sharpened my sadness at how fast our lives were going, how rapidly death was coming out to meet us, but I still couldn't wait to see her: to set down my bags inside the door, to go and find her in her study, where she would probably be chipping away at her interminable e-mail queue, and to hear her say, as she always said when I came home, "So? What did you see?"

Read Jonathan Franzen's biography

See why Walter has a bee in his bonnet about world overpopulation
"My Bird Problem" excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. © 2006


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