by Molly Griffin, illustrated by Claudia McGehee

  • Poetry
decorative header image from Volume III Issue 1 · Fall 2016

We fly north,
just as our ancestors did,
from the warm wintering lands
to the nesting grounds of the arctic.

We have deep memories of this migration,
memories that are centuries old:
knowledge of the route,
and of the dangers,
and of the few safe places
along the way.

Follow the flock,
ride the thermals,
glide on crosswinds,
stay together.

Other flocks join us
until we are many.

We all push on,
following the flyway,
guided by the sun
and the stars and the magnetic pull of the earth,
watching for familiar landmarks
that steer us along our ancient path.

It is such a long trip.

We are not yet halfway there,
but already our bellies rumble,
our wings ache.

where is our sanctuary?

At last:
the prairie, the fields, the river,
the land that stretches out flat, flat, flat
to the flat horizon.

It is safe here.

Here is where we can stop to rest
and eat our fill.

here is our sanctuary.

We circle before settling in,
surveying an area that is both familiar
and new.

We have watched
the prairie shrink,
and the wetlands disappear,
and the water level sink lower.
We must work harder now
because more power lines crisscross our sky,
and more fences zigzag through our fields
waiting to ensnare us.

The food is getting scarce,
and the safe places that are left
are more crowded
than ever before.

But there is still a river for sleeping,
and fields with food to eat.

This place is changed
and yet unchanged.

And so before we move on
we still stop here a while,
grateful for the rest.

this is our sanctuary.

At sunset, we swoop down on the icy river
already crowded with birds
standing one-legged
on shallow, submerged sandbars.

We join them,
huddling together to stay warm.

Darkness descends,
and with it, the bitter cold.

We purr to each other,
gathered close for warmth and comfort.

The air fills with our low droning sound,
a deep thrumming that means
all is well.

We hunker down together,
necks folded over our backs,
heads nestled into our wing feathers,
icy water licking our stick legs.

The water will raise an alarm,
letting us know through vibrations
if danger is approaching,
but tonight all is still.

We are safe,
safe in our sanctuary.

And so the night slowly passes
until dawn begins to creep
over the eastern horizon.

Another day
and the bustle of waking.

We are noisy at dawn.

We call to each other,
bump and jostle each other,
pick the ice from our legs with our beaks,
dance our wings in the wind.

We preen and bathe
and stain our feathers with rust
from the muddy river bottom.

We make ready for the day,
a day without pressing north,
a precious day of rest.

We can rest,
rest in our sanctuary.

It is light now,
though the sun isn’t out today,
and we are all awake,
trumpeting, croaking,
squawking at one another.

The biggest of us push through the jumble,
red foreheads leading the way,
and then lift up into the air on wide gray wings,
testing the wind,
pumping hard for a minute
before settling down into the flock again.

Now, it is time to look for food.

We must ready our bodies to continue north
some day soon.

Around the wide fields we fly,
our gray shapes cutting through the sky in V’s.

Deep wing beats
take us from the river
to the nearby fields
where we will spend this cold day gleaning—
along thick stripes of highway,
amid cows huddled in the fierce wind,
beneath huge spidery farm equipment
waiting in the fields for the weather to turn.

Despite the harsh wind and frigid snow,
our bellies urge us on.

We must fatten up
on the bugs and frogs and seeds of the prairies,
gorge ourselves
on the leftover grain that litters the fields.

We are nourished,
nourished by our sanctuary.

As night falls,
we return to the safety of the river
for another peaceful night’s sleep.

But after a few days of this blessed respite,
the time comes to finish the migration.

One chilly morning,
readiness ripples through the crowd
and suddenly we are on the move.

In a sudden swirl of motion
we rise up
until the air fills with our dark outlines,
our long necks extended forward,
our long legs stretched out behind,
our thin bodies anchoring our wide, graceful wings.

Bird after bird.

Flock after flock.

Fat and rested, we can carry on:
follow the flock,
ride the thermals,
glide on crosswinds,
stay together.

Study for 'Sanctuary', (Potato Print) 4x8 inches, Claudia McGehee, 2013

Study for ‘Sanctuary’, (Potato Print) 4x8 inches, Claudia McGehee, 2013

We are leaving,
leaving our sanctuary,
hoping it will still be here
when we return. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

About Author Molly Beth Griffin
Portrait image of author Molly Beth Griffin.
Photo courtesy of Molly Beth Griffin
Molly Beth Griffin is a graduate of Grinnell College and Hamline University’s MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She is the author of two picture books, Loon Baby, and Rhoda’s Rock Hunt, as well as the award winning young-adult novel Silhouette of a Sparrow. She was the recipient of the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature and the 2014 McKnight Artist Fellowship. She teaches at The Loft Literary Center, critiques manuscripts, and hosts a monthly Picture Book Salon. She lives in South Minneapolis with her partner and their two children.
About Illustrator Claudia McGehee
Portrait image of illustrator Claudia McGehee.
Photo courtesy of Claudia McGehee
Claudia McGehee is the author and illustrator of several children’s picture books that celebrate the natural world. She uses scratchboard and various print-making methods to create sturdy images of the denizens living in prairies, woodlands and water-ways that inspire her. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.