Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 12:19 PM on Wednesday, December 7, 2011

'Faith of Cranes' birthed out of Gustavus writer's despair



By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


 

Hank Lentfer

Here in Kachemak Bay where we share our summers with hundreds of sandhill cranes, the big, gangly birds become familiar. We watch them arrive in April. We see them dust themselves in rusty mud, the better to hide from predators. We watch them hatch colts. We see them fly by, long necks spreading forward, long legs trailing behind and giant wings flapping in slow strokes. We see colts grow up, and then we bid them farewell in September, great circles of cranes spiraling around and around, gathering together before they head south.

Imagine, then, if you live in place where cranes pass by only on their migrations, and the first time you see and hear them in all their majesty, you're awed.

That's the experience that inspired Gustavus writer Hank Lentfer's "Faith of Cranes," published in September by Mountaineer Books. Lentfer speaks at 5 p.m. Saturday at Bunnell Street Arts Center about his book.

"The same cranes that stopped past my place, some of those birds are spending the summer in Homer," Hank Lentfer said in a phone interview from his Gustavus home. "The book is built around that movement and that animal. There are a lot of crane freaks in Homer."

Born in Anchorage, Lentfer, 45, the son of Mary and Jack Lentfer of Homer, spent the first years of his life in Barrow, where his dad did polar bear research. When Jack Lentfer switched to brown bear studies, the family moved to Juneau. Hank grew up and graduated from high school there and considers it his hometown.

While working on a bachelor of science degree in biology from Evergreen College, Olympia, Wash., he worked as a research assistant in Glacier Bay National Park. After graduating, he worked for the National Park Service and stayed in Gustavus, the town near Glacier Bay. At 25 he bought some land and started building a 16-foot-by-16-foot cabin. In the prologue to "Faith of Cranes," he describes first seeing the migration.

"Cranes flew into my life one early evening in late September. I was nailing the last board onto the roof of my house. Cottonwood leaves, yellow and dry, dropped onto the wood while I worked. The flock poured in from the northwest and passed so close the whistle of wind through feathers mixed with their throaty calls. I teetered on the steep roof, hammer dangling from my hand, staring at the birds. I'd heard cranes before but not from the top of my own home, not from the place I intended to spend the rest of my life."

Married to Dr. Anya Maier, a physician in family practice, Lentfer started "Faith of Cranes" in 2003 when his wife became pregnant with their daughter, Linnea, now 8. Lentfer had started writing after he quit the Park Service. When his child was on the way, he brooded over the fate of the environment.

In his prologue he recalled something his Evergreen College ornithology professor said: "Progress is the inevitable diminution of beauty over time."

"How could he bring a child into that world?" he asked himself. To deal with that, he gave himself a homework assignment: "To deal with my despair so I wouldn't pass it on to my daughter."

Out of that came "Faith of Cranes."

"The good news is it was a pretty good assignment, and I'm happier than I've ever been," Lentfer said.

He finished the first draft of the book a week before Linnea was born, but didn't pick it up until she was 2. When he started the book, Lentfer met writer Sherry Simpson. Simpson, a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a frequent instructor at the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference, told him to give himself 10 years to write his first book.

"Well, it took me 10 years," Lentfer said. "She was right."

Lentfer had built a house and a boat and done woodworking.

"I'm not shy," he said of taking on big projects. "I thought, 'hell, I know the alphabet. I can write a book.' It was a hard thing to do. There were a lot of drafts."

Unlike writers who preach the daily practice of writing, Lentfer considers himself a binge writer. He usually writes in winter and never in the summer.

"I can get absorbed and obsessed with the project, and when it's done, I can be happy as hell I'm not writing," he said.

The idea of his book, the homework lesson he learned, came from the cranes, Lentfer said. As a species, sandhill cranes have outlived other North American animals: rhinos, three-toed horses, camels, mammoths and mastodons. They have seen glaciers advance and retreat, forests change to savannah and back.

"The cranes are just doing their thing. They get up. They're laying their eggs," he said. "My daughter just did her thing in my wife's belly, oblivious about any fear and anxiety about the world. ... A fetus and a crane are pulled along by the same force. It's basically a life force that's pulling everything along. Whether you're going to be fine or not, you're going to be pulled forward."

In addition to his writing, Lentfer works as preserve steward for the 4,000-acre Gustavus Forelands Preserve, a Nature Conservancy parcel that's open space for Gustavus residents to be used and enjoyed, he said. He's also a woodworker and stay at home dad when his wife works part time in Juneau. As part of his Alaska book tour, he also speaks in Anchorage, Sitka and Juneau.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.

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