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The Blue Heron

Garth Brown |

Trying to explain some aspect of the farm that I am directly influencing is relatively straightforward. But one of my favorite parts of living here, a part that is much harder to capture in writing, is the overlapping but almost entirely discreet worlds of animals and plants that share the land while keeping entirely to themselves. If I have any interaction with them it a glimpse in passing. Yet their presence, seen and unseen, enriches both my life and the life of the farm.

The blue heron’s wings curved like twin parachutes to cup the air as she wobbled downwards, stick legs outstretched and reaching to meet the ground. She stalked down the bank and waited. Two years ago an afternoon with a rented excavator had dug the pond at the edge of a marshy bit of land where water from the hill rising up to the north seeped out, and since then wildlife had found it, ducks nesting on its edge, brown thrashers, deer, and rabbits drinking from it, but most of all frogs. There were leopard and bull frogs, and thousands of peepers. They laid their eggs in quivering, gelatinous clumps of translucent eyeballs, each with a quickening black pupil at its center. The tadpoles hatched out and grew, and raccoons and snakes and herons both blue and green came to feed on the frogs and their spawn.

But now it was fall. Two days before the first snow had fallen, the cattails at the pond’s edge had dessicated, and the pond lay still with the first tentative crusts of ice reaching from its banks. There were perhaps amphibians lingering deep in the mud at its outflow, but only the water itself move. Yet the heron stood all morning, patiently expectant that the pond would yield up something. The only other living thing she saw was a shrew that scurried along through the dried grass, just out of reach of her dagger beak.

The first of May she had wobbled sticky from her shell into a nest woven against the trunk of a dying hemlock that reached high above the surrounding forest of ash. Her first sight had been the small catfish her mother coughed up onto the floor of snarled sticks, and she had watched and then joined her sister, a full day older, in pecking flesh from the needle bones. That night as the air cooled her mother had settled over the nest’s cupped center, and the newborn heron had curled in the warmth beside the final egg, which had just begun to twitch.

Through the spring the mother and father herons filled her gullet with fish and frogs, and soon she and her siblings jostled and pecked for room and food. Summer arrived and she balanced on the edge of the nest and stretched her wings. The morning wind that blew off the fog from the valley below pushed through her newly grown flight feathers, and she beat back against it, until one day she leapt off to soar ungainly over the trees and down into a pasture of knee high orchardgrass. Sheep ran as she landed, but the herd of cows remained laying glossy in the heat, watching and ruminating.

She found the small stream that ran between brushy banks and each day she went and stood still in the center of its current until she glimpsed a silver flash beneath the surface. Her neck would uncoil like a striking snake to spear a minnow. Then she would do it again and again until her stomach was so distended her wings could barely lift her. She also learned to stalk through the tall grass in search of the mice and voles that scurried about gathering seeds, and in the swamp she would outlast frogs, snatching them up when they kicked to the surface to steal a breath.

By the end of October her parents and siblings had flown south and east, but she stayed on, gleaning minnows and chub from torpid forest pools. The year before her half brother had stayed here deep into winter, until all the water had frozen over and all the fields had snowed under, and he had starved and died tangled in the spray of willow canes beside the one place the current flowed fast enough to wear an opening through the ice. As he had she flew further and hunted longer for less food. She learned first that the frogs and salamanders were gone, and then the still water began to freeze and the pools were closed.

On the first day of the new year she stood in a riffle rapid enough to hold back the encroaching ice. The light was pale and cold through a thin layer of clouds, and snow so fine it tumbled and gusted like crystalline smoke hung in the air. She cocked her head and looked at the bare branches that clattered against each other with each gust, and then she finally rose and began beating her way towards the sun in search of open water.

Garth Brown

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