I was surrounded by a cacophony of swans and geese. Such a perfect word for the exuberant conversation of migratory Tundra Swans, Snow, Ross and White-Fronted Geese that arrive every winter to the flooded rice fields in the upper Sacramento Valley. I spent the afternoon with them recently, amazed as I imagine people have always been at this seasonal flyway.
Two hundred years ago, a Patwin woman – one of the valley tribes I write of in my book – might have looked up at the first honks of returning swans, knowing it was the time for gathering acorns and manzanita berries. Spanish, Mexican, then European settlers from the east probably saw the migration as the arrival of protein for their winter larder. But for me, it’s the anticipated arrival of wonder.
People migrate – some. Migrant workers follow the ripening of spring lettuce and winter squash. As a rural school nurse, I knew certain families would show up in the spring when the weather was warm enough to camp out at the river. They stayed until the first frost, then moved on. Now it’s the seasonal folks who arrive in fall with their trimming scissors to work the local cash crop. When the harvest’s done, they too move on.
I wonder how the long-term impact of climate change will affect the signals that trigger migration? 2012 was the hottest year on record – a recent report by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Earlier springs, longer, hotter summers, harsher wildfires, droughts, crop losses. Will my great grandchildren tell their children of the days when swans used to overwinter where farmers used to grow rice in the Sacramento Valley?
I like my present-time roots. I feel them deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but I also feel them across the valley where my ancestors settled in 1849. I like making that trek. I feel the pull of my own winter migration when the returning swans call me to drop what I’m doing, and meet them in the valley.