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In This Place

Great Blue Heron, Inspector of Docks

Terry Foote / Wikipedia
CC BY 2.0
Great Blue Heron

One morning last month, as I was sitting on the screened porch of a lakeside cabin in Vermont, a great blue heron landed on the small dock below me, stood a moment to contemplate its next move, and then promenaded up onto a small patch of grassy lawn, planting its wide, flat feet on the grass as gingerly and methodically as if it were crossing a minefield. For some reason it reminded me of the opening of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead...[a] yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.” Except, of course, the heron was anything but plump. With its impossibly long, thin legs, its impossibly long, curved, serpentine neck, shuckling its head and its long spear-like beak back and forth as if connected to the rhythm of its feet, the heron carried its folded grey-blue wings and torso like a backpack, occasionally twitching its small tail like a dog’s. I could feel its long black intense stare even inside the screened porch.

I have been close to herons before, but never this close, and never with the heron so seemingly unaware of me. I was drawn not only by its proximity, but even more by the intensity of its motionlessness. It seemed in its supreme self-possession to draw everything, including me, into its sphere of influence. Every movement, every step or half-step was accomplished with unrivaled deliberateness, with motion aforethought. It was the very archetype of thoughtfulness. Its silence compelled attention.

The heron strode out onto our neighbors’ dock and then climbed up onto their moored boat, reaching out and balancingon the thin aluminum railing, where for once only, it seemed momentarily off-balance: its great gray wings opened like an umbrella in a sudden gust of wind, but it quickly regained its wonted equilibrium, stepping down onto the driver’s seat where it crouched, facing forward, as if waiting for someone to untie the boat so that it could launch itself out onto the lake. But if it was, the thought swiftly left its avian brain, as it stepped up onto the other side of the dock

And there it stood, like a still life, flanked by ceramic tubs of red geraniums, blue nasturtiums, and lavender petunias, for a long time. It adopted that classic motionless posture that it assumes when standing in a marsh, waiting with eternal patiencefor some unsuspecting minnow or water snake to come within its lightning-striking distance, striking and recoiling so fast that the two motions seemed to take place simultaneously, in a single moment of timelessness.

I found myself wondering — What was it thinking? — knowing, of course, how foolish and futile and yet irresistible is the urge to get inside the brain of a wild creature, attempting to translate its external, alien, movements into human thoughts. As far as I know, the heron was not thinking or doing anything. It was simply being, as mindful and in-the-moment as the most serene Zen Buddhist. Perhaps it is Zen practitioners who come the closest to understanding wild creatures, while writers like me are tied by innumerable subjective thoughts that weave, at best, a semi-permeable screen between me and the bird.

Eventually the heron launched itself and flew out to the swimming raft offshore, where a plastic owl was attached to one corner to keep off gulls. There it resumed its motionless posture catty-corner to the owl, as if engaging in a stare-down contest with it. It gradually approached the decoy and, observing it first with one dark eye, then the other, and apparently satisfied that it was “nothing,” it flew off to its next rendezvous, leaving me to make what I would of the encounter.