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Michael Perry: Birds have figured out how to work as a team. Why haven't humans?

Michael Perry: Birds have figured out how to work as a team. Why haven't humans?


I heard the cranes before I saw them, high as they were in the sky, pale sandhills strung loosely across the blue, their wings underlit by the late afternoon sun, each a soft strobe as it flapped.

This being a time of uncertainty I took the sight of them in migration as comfort of a cycle preserved. There was also the metaphor of them flying high above it all. Lucky birds.

Poetics have their limits, and in fact here on the ground other things required my attention. The new aluminum ladder has re-emerged from the last snow and must be stowed. The chicken coop must be moved uphill to where the extension cord will reach it so I can plug in the heated watering bucket — already most mornings the unheated version cradles a disc of ice. Out along the fencerow there is one more pile of oak to split and stack before it’s socked in snow.

Yesterday I spent an hour on the phone with a friend who lost his father to the coronavirus. Sixty years old and gone. One story among thousands, and thousands more by now.

Our collective reaction to the pandemic has been the confounding experience of my life. Just today I heard the phrase, “Well, she was in her 80s,” as if somehow that was mitigation.

I’ve been preparing to die for decades now and operate somewhere between pragmatism and self-preservation but hope I have never slipped into flippancy regarding my mortality, let alone that of another human being.

There is also the reality that ranks of health care professionals are pulling understaffed overtime shifts in the face of this beast. I volunteer on a regional hospital board. Last week, facilities were at 100% capacity and scores of staff were sidelined due to exposure.

When it comes to standing atop soapboxes, my sense of balance is tenuous. I am uncomfortable up there, and easily toppled. Furthermore, even as I speak my own failings heckle me from ground level.

So to be clear: I am not impervious to stumbles and poor judgment. I have commitments in the next 48 hours for which the risk is near-zero but not zero. But I’ll keep masking up and hope you will too.

This is mitigation in the mathematical sense. It won’t take us to zero, but it’ll help us trend that way as we await the cavalry.

Every word I type here is submitted with deference to those enduring the very real pain of social deprivation and economic hardship.

As with most euphemisms, neither phrase conveys the gut-punch of reality. I also acknowledge those folks working because we have deemed them essential, or their own economic survival demands it. We can do more to help them.

I am in over my head and you didn’t hire me to tell you how to live. From my desk I can see chickens working the green grass of the yard while it’s still available. In general they move as a flock, but there are intermittent tussles and peck-fests.

If sandhill cranes are anything like chickens I suppose they don’t always live in harmony either, but at least twice a year they manage to get it together to fly in the same direction.

An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” ( Read more from Michael Perry at

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