Recently, I was with my two young boys outside our home when I looked up across our road and saw a Great Blue Heron flying over the creek that runs beside us. It landed on a rock bank, and I pointed it out to my oldest son, because he’d noticed that I was looking at something. Blue Herons are abundant in some places, but by our home, they’re a rare and special sight, and I am always on the lookout for them.
One thing about Herons is that they are solitary birds, and they don’t like to be approached. If a Heron so much as suspects that you are moving toward its direction, it will lift itself up with its massive wings and fly faster and further than you could ever dream of following. I’ve seen the birds on many occasions around the creek and the pond near our home, but I’ve never been able to sneak up on one.
As my two boys and I looked over at the Heron that was fishing in our creek, we worked our way over toward it, and sure enough, it rose up and flew off beyond our sight. I told my oldest son that they often do that, but I was glad that he at least got to see it from afar.
We made our way back to our house and I let them play out in the rocks and mud while I watched them. About ten minutes went by, long enough for me to forget about the Heron, when suddenly, a sound came from the creek like something out of Jurassic Park. If you’ve ever heard the croaking call of a Heron, you know the sound I’m talking about. It sounds prehistoric, especially knowing that the sound is being made by a bird—it’s raspy and deep, almost like the sound of a howler monkey. When I turned to find the source of the call, I saw that the Heron had flown back in our direction. It circled once in front of our view, and then it flew off toward the trees, vanishing in seconds. My oldest son heard and saw it too, and he seemed just as excited as I was. Out of all the times I’d seen Herons at that creek, I’d never seen or heard one do what that one did.
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Aldo Leopold, a writer and conservationist from the early 1900s, wrote a collection of essays titled “A Sand County Almanac,” and in the beginning of the book, he said this:
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”
Later in the book, he wrote that he was glad that he would never have to be “young without wild country to be young in.” Ever since I first read that line, I haven’t been able to get over it. It makes me think back on the places I’ve known throughout my life, and just how much many of them have changed. Mostly, I think of the trees I knew that once stood tall, but which have since been cut down and forgotten entirely. I think also of the sightings I had of wild animals as a child—the smell of wild turkeys roosting in the trees above me on a hunt in the early morning, or the excitement of chasing rabbits through a wheat-field. And with these, I think of the bad sightings, like the first time I saw a dead turtle, or the time I watched an older teenage boy pick up a mouse and squeeze it until its head swelled up and its body went flat.
The necessity of Leopold’s arguments for living with wild things around us is more pertinent now than when he first wrote them, because year after year, it seems that wild places are rapidly vanishing, and I can’t help but feel that something’s got to give at some point. Wendell Berry has been writing about this topic and others like it for years now, and in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” he speaks about the freedom that comes from being in the presence of wild things.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
All of these thoughts bring me back to that Great Blue Heron that I sometimes see around our home. The sightings are never planned, and they do not follow any sort of time-table. They come when they come, and often I find that I am too occupied with my thoughts to notice them until it is too late, such as the other day when I saw a Barred Owl fly over me and realized that I had just walked passed the light-pole where it’d been perching only moments before. As much as I would love to walk up to a Blue Heron so that I could stroke my hand across it feathers, I know that I will never be able to, for the two of us live in different spaces of the same world. It is ours to share, and for me to try to bring it into my space would be an invasion of its wild space. To rid this world of all its wild places and things, where anything can happen at any time, is to forsake moments like the one I had with my two sons, a moment that could never have been planned, but now can never be forgotten.