“Tell Me a Story,” Aug. 20, 2019

Where do stories come from? Why do they surface in our memories at unexpected times and make us want to tell them to anyone who will listen?

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I grew up, storytelling is a part of life, like breathing air and swatting mosquitoes. It originated with the Native Americans, who lived there long before settlers showed up from faraway places and started telling stories of their own.

The storytellers in those mountains were sometimes known as “liars” — not because they were deceitful, but because their stories were often more fabricated than factual. Yet they were cleverly true of the human condition, intended not just to inform, but to entertain and enlighten and inspire.

I come from a family of “liars.” My grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, dozens of cousins, my blind baby brother, the dogs that slept under the porch, even the fleas that slept on the dogs — we all told stories.

Maybe you do, too. Most of us do. Every place I go, every state, every country, every culture, people will tell me their stories and listen politely to mine.

Why? Stories tell us who we are and how we’re alike. They let us connect and stay connected with one another and ourselves.

I told you all of that to tell you this. My husband I were talking with Henry, our 7-year-old grandson, who is an expert on all things animal. He was telling us about a “tanuki,” a kind of dog that looks like a raccoon.

“It’s one of my favorite animals,” Henry said. “It lives in Japan. Maybe someday I’ll go there and get to see a real one.”

“You will,” I said. “And it will tell you a story that you can come back and tell me!”

He laughed his weasel laugh. It sounds a lot like a weasel.

Suddenly I recalled a day that I never want to forget.

“Wanna hear a story?” I said.

Henry’s eyes lit up. He loves stories almost as much as he loves animals. So I told him how, years ago, while on a speaking trip to Nebraska, I put on everything I had packed in my suitcase and went out in freezing weather at 5 a.m. to stand in a duck blind and watch hundreds of thousands of birds wake up and take wing.

Not just any birds. They were big, graceful, ghostly gray sandhill cranes, 3 to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 6 feet, and weighing 8 to 12 pounds.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Every spring, for what some say has been 9 million years, a 60-mile stretch along the Platte River (from Grand Island to Kearney to Overton) becomes a stopover for a half million or so sandhill cranes that take a break from their migration to fatten up in the area’s vast cornfields before the long flight north.

“Henry,” I said, “when those birds took off, all those wings flapping together sounded like a train! Can you imagine looking up at a sky filled with hundreds of thousands of giant birds?”

“Whoa,” he said, “that just sounds amazing, Nana!”

It’s fun to impress a 7 year old. I don’t manage to do it often, but when I do, I like it a lot.

While I was telling Henry that story, my husband found some TV documentaries on sandhill cranes and the three of us watched them together. They were stunning. A picture is, after all, worth a thousand words. But seeing and hearing for yourself is believing. Even in freezing weather at 5 a.m.

Nature is a master storyteller. Birds and valleys and rivers and stars tell tales we need to hear.

Henry said, “Maybe someday I’ll go to Nebraska and get to see those cranes for myself.”

“You will,” I said. “And they will tell you a story that you can come back and tell me!”

He laughed his weasel laugh, adding, “And then I’ll go to Japan and see a tanuki.”


  1. Jeanie Stanton says

    I just read your column about cranes and immediately watched an 8 minute clip on YouTube about crane migration in Nebraska. Thank you so much. I knew nothing about their migration. Now I want to go to Nebraska.

  2. Lisa Evans says

    I live in Kearney, Nebraska, and forget how amazing the annual crane migration is. Falling asleep at night to the sound of their musical crooning, and waking up the next morning to see them flying overhead on their way to feed in a nearby field is a magical experience! Their dance to attract a mate (a bond that will last a lifetime) is something wonderful to see. We would love to have you come back to Nebraska and bring Henry for his first crane experience!

  3. Ms. Randall, I enjoy your column each week, and have bookmarked this site, since I am letting the subscription to our local Rag run out, too much junk about the rest of the country, not enough local news. The paper from the town up the freeway, reports more local news about our town than our paper does. I will just miss seeing your PRETTY PIC that the paper displays, and they charge for their Digital ONLINE edition, but there are ways (WinkWink) 🙂

  4. Dolores Rico Daley says

    Sharon: You and Mark must know that there is a great showing of sand hill cranes each year in Lodi.
    There is always a group from here in O’Connor Woods to view them. Maybe you and Mark can bring your grandson to see them, and to see where his great grandmother and great grandfather used to live – O’Connor Woods, Tracy, ——- even Banta!

  5. Margie Poe says

    When we were living in Odessa in far West Texas years ago, we were fortunate enough to be able to watch/witness the beautiful and graceful sandhill cranes make their annual migration trek through the area—what an amazing sight!. I sure miss that absolutely mesmerizing adventure! I almost feel like I’m traveling back in time with your vivid description. Thanks again for the memory! 💞

  6. Shirley Thacker says

    Love love love! To capture a young person’s attention is magical. Come to think of it, it is pretty magical for an adult too. You are the best!!

  7. Wendel Potter says

    Hi Sharon. My wife and I were just talking the other day about the weekend
    you visited Grand Island. I was a columnist for the newspaper at the time
    and was assigned to escort you to the book signing and, later, your speaking
    engagement. It was such a pleasure visiting with you. We live in Florida now
    and were surprised by the sandhill crane population down here. Whenever
    I see one, I think of your Nebraska visit and our autographed copy of Birdbaths and Paper Cranes.

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