he great blue heron stands three to four-and-a-half feet tall and has a wingspan of up to eighty inches wide, wider than I am tall by eighteen inches. I would like to lie in the wings of a great blue heron, in its downy under feathers, and listen to its heartbeat.
It has been my dream to see one up close, ever since I first read about them in the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
at the library. I like to draw herons and other birds, and write poems and stories about them. Birds are such happy things, and so free to flit and glide wherever they want, yet they always return to their nests. Maybe that's what makes them happy. Great blue herons hardly seem in the category of birds, though. To me they seem more like enchanted creatures, waiting for someone to break the spell so they can change back into the princes and princesses they once were.
Great blue herons inhabit much of North America, but they live in wetlands, not forests, staying near lakes and streams so they can fish. They have been known to eat voles, which is really just a fancy word for mice, but probably only when they can't eat fish. There are no wetlands in the Joseph Woods, but back when we had our car and we still thought Pater would have a job, we took a drive out to the river one Sunday and roasted hot dogs for lunch. We saw three great blue herons fly over us that day, like magic, like a sign that we were meant to be in Oregon.
Last year a baby orca and its mother wandered too far upriver from the ocean; we saw the story in The Oregonian.
They didn't know how to get back home. Pater said all the fuss from people and boaters and news helicopters was probably confusing them more. He didn't say he thought they'd never find their way back, but I know that's what he was thinking. In my mind, I like to think they submerged so no one could see them under all that deep blue, popping up again when they were safely out to sea.
Also last year, for my twelfth birthday, Pater found a book at the Wildlife Sanctuary about our forest and its flora and fauna. He doesn't usually buy books, because we can borrow them for free from the library, and we sometimes find good ones in the free box at Goodwill. But he said I was getting older and needed some books of my own, so he bought me The Wilds of Joseph Woods State Park
, by Carol Frischmann. I can't believe someone would write about where we live, and I would like to find Miss Frischmann one day and thank her, because in her book, she says that the great blue heron has been sighted here, in my forest, on very rare occasions. That gave me hope.
I often walked along our creek looking for morels, stopping every once in a while to sketch a kestrel posing on a limb, or a clump of Johnny-jump-ups. The day everything changed, I was thinking about herons, so I almost wasn't surprised when I saw the tall swoop of gray-blue farther down the creek. I knew it could be a trick of my eyes, but my heart began to beat as rapidly as a hummingbird's. Could it really be a heron? Or was it just me wanting it that made it look like one? It could have been a piece of newspaper caught in a tree, a scrap of a hiker's coat or a camper's tarp. They leave behind the oddest things, like one shoe, or a camera bag. Things you'd think they would need and be more careful about. If I lost one shoe, or my coat, I'd hate even to tell Pater. He says the VA's four hundred dollars a month doesn't go very far, even without rent and paying for the energy that Nature makes for free. You still have to eat some store-bought food (even though we grow most of our own vegetables, and forage berries, herbs, and mushrooms). You still need basic necessities (his polite way of saying menstrual supplies and toilet paper, as I just can't make myself use leaves like he does). You still have to have presentable clothes for church, he says, and to save for the future.
The tall gray shape moved, and I crept slowly toward it, dropping the paper and pencil on top of the mushrooms in my pocket. I worried I would startle whatever it was because I wore my sparkly silver foraging dress over my jeans and T-shirt. The dress was Crystal's. I took it from her closet the night we left to remember her by. I wear it to collect mushrooms because it has a big pocket on the right side and I don't need to carry a bag. I took soft quiet steps in the underbrush, slipping behind a hemlock when I was as close as I dared go. I leaned my head to the left of the tree, ignoring the tiny ants marching up a woody ridge, and slowly, slowly, I could see the creek, then in the middle of it, a bird, a big, beautiful blue heron. My breath came as fast as if I'd been running, and it was almost like I could cry. I was so overwhelmed at what I'd been allowed by Nature to see.
The heron didn't seem to notice me as I watched it dip its head down into the water, neck snaking in a long graceful S-curve. I was almost sure it was a male, even though there are no discernible differences between male and female great blue herons. I just felt that I knew this, and Pater says when you think you know something, you ought to listen to your instincts. The heron made a quick stabbing motion and lifted his head back up, pointing his beak toward the treetops, and gulped down the fish he had caught. One thing I can tell you: the great blue heron is the most elegant fisher of any waterfowl I've seen.
He kept wading downstream, looking for more fish, stopping here and there to poke his beak between rocks, then moving on. I crept behind him from hemlock to fir. I don't know how long I followed my heron. I've never been in a trance, but it felt as if I were in one that day, the rest of the forest and chattering birds fading away into the green afternoon light, and I could only focus on the heron's shaggy back feathers and the black of the flight feathers on his wings, kept tucked at his side like closed fans.
When he turned his head toward me, I saw the black stripe behind his eyes. He looked right at me and didn't flinch, so I came out from behind the trees, still keeping my distance as I followed him into a clearing.
And then I woke from my trance and realized I was too near the trail. I could hear people talking, and so could my heron. His head swiveled toward the sound, and then a wide woman with short gray hair appeared from behind a stand of alders across the clearing, binoculars pinned to her eyes, and she said in a loud whisper, "Hey, everybody, look! What's that creature doing in the woods?"
A crowd of other people gathered around her, slinging binoculars to their faces, and I heard a flapping, whooshing sound. I looked back at the heron and he'd already lifted from the ground, his long twig legs and feet trailing behind him as he flew up to roost in the treetops.
"Oh, no, we scared it," the woman said. As I turned to run I heard her say, "Oh my land, look over there! What is that girl doing here all alone? Where are her parents? Hey, you, little girl, are you all right?"
Then I heard a man give out a yell and someone began to crash through the brush after me.
I ran and ran toward home, as fast as I could until I could no longer hear anyone behind me. I found a deer trail in case they tried to follow me up the creek. I was stunned at how far I'd walked downhill; it had felt like only a few moments, but it took forever to get back home, running up and up the hill, out of breath, my legs cramping. All I could think was, Pater told me so, he told me not to wander around daydreaming or I'd get too close.
For one small moment, I thought maybe seeing the great blue heron was worth it. But then I saw Pater's face as he saw me, panicked and running into camp, and I wished I could take that thought back.