Editor’s note: this story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of the Capital City Weekly.
One day this fall, an estimated 10,000 sandhill cranes flew over Gustavus in a single morning.
“I’ve never seen so many birds move through in one go,” said Hank Lentfer, who has been observing these birds on their fall migrations for two decades, since the day he hammered the last nail into his house.
The natural history of cranes frame Lentfer’s recently published memoir, “Faith of Cranes,” which traces his journey of deepening commitments to place, home and family — and how he makes peace with a world in which loss is inherent.
Lentfer will sign copies of the book tonight at Hearthside Books at the Nugget Mall beginning at 6:30 p.m.
As he writes in the prologue, his book is “a story of how cranes, deer, and one little black-haired, blue-eyed girl taught me that running from loss is a race you can win only be standing still; a story of how one man, blinded to present beauty by the fear of an ugly future, regained his sight.”
A biologist by training, Lentfer spent most of his 20s working for Glacier Bay National Park. In the mid-’90s, he helped establish the Gustavus Forelands Preserve, which he now manages. In early 2001, in response to proposals to start drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Lentfer, along with Carolyn Servid of Sitka, edited “Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony,” a collection of contributions from writers throughout the country.
Young people interested in conservation are some of the readers Lentfer envisions for his book.
“I created the book I wish had been available to me when I was in college,” he said. “There is a growing avalanche of grim ecological news which can be overwhelming to process and digest, especially if you set the goal for yourself of trying to reverse some of those trends. “
Still, he stresses, conservation work is worth doing, regardless of the outcome.
“If a young person came to me and said, ‘If it’s all going to hell, why do the work?’ part of my answer is the people doing the work alongside you are great people to spend your life with,” Lentfer said.
These great people he’s spent his own life with form the cast of “Faith of Cranes.” The power of neighbors is an important theme in the book, as is mortality.
“There’s a lot of reminders about how precious life is because it’s so short,” Lentfer said. “That reminder is a powerful one regardless of where you live.”
But where you live is still a central question to any life. In the fall, as he watches seasonal park workers pack up and leave Glacier Bay for their next adventures, Lentfer feels thankful that he has found a solid home in Gustavus.
“Once you choose a spot and can erase that question from your life, it frees up a lot of energy,” he said. “It’s kind of like finding a soul mate.”
There are, in a way, two grand tales of courtship in his book, Lentfer said. The narrative of his courtship with his wife, Anya Maier, intersects with the courtship of the land where his family makes their home.
“Faith of Cranes” has been almost a decade in the making. Lentfer wrote his first draft before the birth of his daughter Linnea, who is now 7 years old, and the book has changed greatly over the years of its creation.
By telling the story of how he was drawn into Gustavus, Lentfer hopes the book will draw readers deeper into the places they live — whether Gustavus, Washington state or New York City — and deepen their appreciation for their own homes.
“I think it’s applicable to people wherever they live,” said fellow Gustavus author Kim Heacox. “Where does faith come from — and hope? It’s really got deep universal themes, and I think that’s why people are soaking it up.”
Heacox, whose own memoir, “The Only Kayak,” addresses similar themes, lives a quarter mile down a dirt road from Lentfer. The two spent many an evening talking about “Faith of Cranes” over the past nine years.
Lentfer is “deeply loved in this town,” Heacox said, and he called “Faith of Cranes” a “great gift” to the Gustavus area, and a great addition to Alaska literature.
For example, he said, there are thematic resonances with Lynn Schooler’s book “The Blue Bear,” in terms of the idea of trust.
“Lynn’s idea was trusting other people. Hank’s book, to me, is about learning to trust that we as a species ... will do OK, that we will not blow it,” Heacox said. “That his daughter and her daughter and her daughter will have a good, bountiful and joyous life.”
When I spoke to Hank over the phone in October, he had just taken his daughter to school and was back home, sitting on his porch. A storm had just blown through and the migrating cranes were landing. “There’s hundreds of them, I can’t quite see them, hundreds of them just down,” he said excitedly.
He held out the phone to let me hear their voices. Just forty miles away in Juneau, I had to hold my hand over my other ear to tune out of the construction work outside my own door.
“The two main things I’m really aware of when I return to Gustavus after Juneau or Seattle is both the quiet and the pace,” Lentfer said. “And the quiet is one of the most rejuvenating things. ... I think in more urban city environments we by necessity have to turn our ears off. Otherwise they just become over-stimulated. Here, you open them up — and there’s the cranes and the thrushes and the drip of rain on the roof.”
“It is an amazing and, unfortunately, a rare thing for Americans to experience. I’m sitting on my porch right now and I hear cranes and the drip of water on my trees and that’s it.”
For more information about Lentfer’s signing, visit www.hearthsidebooks.com.
For more on the author and his books, visit hanklentfer.com.