On the road home from the wedding of Muriel Bishop and Douglas Summers, reunited after many years apart, a beautiful, hot, end-of-summer day, we stopped for a stretch at the Black River, dark yet sparkling in the sunlight, its margins golden and purple with September flowers. Still tranquil and open-hearted from the loving event, I strolled along the river bank. Suddenly, up flew a heron from the reeds quite near us! He spread his great wings and called out hoarsely as he flew across the blue-black water, into the autumn-colored trees beyond. Somehow I felt the heron was saluting us, felt inspired to be equally strong-winged. Then he flew on, way on down the river, steadily pumping those wonderful blue-gray wings. Another "Quoo-ooon-nnk" echoed across the distance.
Over the past ten years I have gradually grown into a sense of deep and sacred connection to great blue herons. In the beginning, I was surprised by this connection to the natural world, but now I have come to accept that these large, long-legged, wide-winged birds are a very precious part of my spiritual life. To me, herons are graceful, not at all ungainly, and their appearance always seems portentous. My encounters with herons—or even with just a consciousness of herons—always seem to help me find Spirit, reminding me of my divine center.
This set of journal entries about those encounters and my life during this period, integrated with my reflections upon both, are meant to share some of my spiritual journey. The journey is often punctuated by stillness.
I. Heron Stillness
On my run today I ended up at my lookout point in the conservation area and spotted a sentinel heron about half- way across the lake. I had binoculars with me, so I observed him closely for a bit, as he waited—for what?—quite motionless. Then I simply stood still myself, asking for help to quiet my internal dialogue, my rushing mind with its lists of all there is to do.
Many years of trying to get the day-by-day business of moving forward right have taught me to start from that core place of Spirit. And in recent years herons have helped my learning. Over and over I have seen them, standing still in a lake or river or along the margin of a swamp or pond, reminding me in some mysterious way to "be still and know that I am God."
What does it mean to be still, then? For a heron I imagine it means merging into a timeless now, fully present in each moment, aware of water, fish, lily pads, wind. Herons seem so good at this, not moving at all for long stretches of time, then perhaps simply cocking an angular head, or taking a few steps, spreading out a wing and folding it back inward again, turning to face another direction if need be, and returning to watchful stillness.
As I watch this straight gray-blue shape, I think being here now, fully myself, means a total immersion in knowing that all is well, being relaxed in faith that my life is unfolding as it should. This understanding helps me to still my incessant inner chatter. I salute that heron, nod towards yet another one fishing farther beyond the first, and turn toward home, holding heron stillness within my heart.
blue heron balances
For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms. . . . Here on this island I have had space. . . . Here there is time; time to be quiet; time to work without pressure; time to think; time to watch the heron, watching with frozen patience for his prey. . . . Then communication becomes communion and one is nourished as one never is by words.
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Gift From the Sea
II. God-ness through Herons
Some days I am filled with a pervasive sense of inclusiveness, that God is the herons and all the other birds, yes, and their reflections in the still water; and God is the snapping turtle that lurks beneath the surface, and the tiny feathers, the minute duckweed, the foraging snails, and even the rotting logs. At the same time I play with the paradox that I myself am a spark of God, have my own divine core. Other times the phrase "and know that I am God" pushes me right outside my immediate personal thoughts into a new framework that starts me saying my prayers.
Just what does that phrase mean? It’s puzzling because I find different responses in myself as I move through differing moods and modes of being. Some days those words admonish me, tell me sharply to just stop and relax. Other times, more gently, these words remind me to let go of all my small worries, schedules, and questions and to realize I am part of a bigger reality. How often I forget that this life business is a partnership! How lucky it is that we get frequent nudges to remember Spirit.
I recollect that many years ago, teaching seven-year-olds in England, I had a table on which I assembled all sorts of finite images of God, brought home from my travels in the East. There was a brass statue of the elephant-headed Ganesha, the Hindu god who grants humans access to all the other gods; a sandalwood statue from Kerala of flute-playing Krishna; pictures of Buddhist stupas; an oil lamp from Pakistan (Moslems have no images), and lots more. I meant to raise the question "What does God look like, anyway?" and to broaden the horizons of children whose cross-cultural experiences were very limited. We spoke of pictures they were familiar with, taken from Christian traditions, pictures of Jesus or angels.
Today I know I would add a heron image to that table, and we would talk about moments of feeling at one with the natural world as a way of apprehending God, of feeling connected to meaning bigger than ourselves. Interestingly, the children I have worked with recently seem to understand my sense of the profound beauty of herons, and they eagerly tell me about herons they have seen. Also, I hear bird stories from many people, telling of powerful moments of meaning, seeing God’s hand in their lives—when a bird seems to be present or even an agent for Spirit. It’s all so rich and huge, although hard to fully understand; that probably is a good definition of the Divine!
. . . our learning comes from this, when a heron blurs the lines of our Divinity.
—Craig William Andrews
quoted in the magazine Heron Dance, August 1997
III. Praying with Herons
What I have been learning over these heron years is that part of my job in living, part of my business or work, part of being truly human, is to pray, even though I don’t think I fully understand just exactly what prayer is. Once at Canadian Yearly Meeting I signed up for a small group discussion on prayer led by Lyle Jenks, a man whom I love for his clarity. Only eight of us gathered in a small room to share our experiences, but several were very dear Friends and wise older women. It was a very close time—a precious time, in Quaker language.
Lyle opened our session by saying he didn’t know what the boundaries of prayer were—and to my dismay I burst into quiet tears that continued for some time. I felt fragile not only then and when it was my turn to share my thoughts, but also later over supper. Still I chose to be open and to tell the group about herons and their importance to me in general. I specifically spoke about one summer day on the bike path when I had seen herons in an abundance that electrified me, and I said, "Whatever it means, I pray with herons." Later I remember the sense that this sharing-which-felt-like-confession was seminal, a turning point in acknowledging my relationship to these magnificent birds
Another time, in a different Quaker workshop, a leader referred to prayer as "absolute attention," which made profound sense to me. When I am giving thanks or seeking help for myself or others, the more I am totally absorbed in that process, the more connected to the Divine Spirit I feel, the more I intuit I am truly praying as the world’s wise ones speak of it, attending to the absolute moment of love or need or gratitude. And when I meet herons, for reasons beyond my understanding but miraculously acceptable to me, I am attentive in the deepest ways I know. And so it seems that I indeed pray with herons.
We use imagery to translate the immense unknowable Sacred into symbolic terms we can relate to. We pray to a "Thou," not an "it." We have "peopled" the heavens with angels and attributed the earth and sky with familial ties: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth. We look for ways to be in relationship with the energy of the universe.
IV. Herons Rising Fearless—vs. Flapping Ducks
I run to the edge of Mud Lake where the large bare log makes a good sitting place and find the opening blocked by a big maple sapling. The beavers have chewed it down—they perennially resume activity in the fall. I heave and pull on the sapling, leaving it in the water where I hope the beavers will claim their rightful booty, but I scare a lot of bird life in so doing. Dozens of ducks fly up, quacking and fussing, and a number of grebes are frightened away. Far off two herons move on down into the swamp, their wings startling white in a sudden burst of sun between gray clouds.
As I stand and watch, the sound of the ducks flying is very noticeable—they flap out of the water, awkward and noisy in contrast to the great blues’ silent rising, and then the ducks’ wing movements actually whistle—in a rusty, inefficient-sounding way—as they go. Herons, in comparison, seem so deliberate and slow, so sure. They may fly off, but do so prudently, never in a panic like the ducks so literally "in a flap." It’s as if they decide to move on merely because their human observers are being inconsiderate. Despite their size, those great, gray wings seem hushed, and when the herons quonk at me, they may be annoyed in a superior way, but they do not seem to scold out of fear, like their smaller feathered fellows.
In fact, the herons seem quite fearless to me, whether standing their watery ground or wisely departing when conditions are not good for them. And this I ask for myself, for all of us: fearlessness. Further, I ask for the wisdom to know when it is a moment to be still and stay where we are, remembering our deep connection to the Divine, or when it is time to move on. To decide that a situation is not right and to declare it as clearly as the heron quonks is a radical act. As a child I did not have these wise models and actually learned an opposite sort of behavior. A young girl in a large, judgmental family, I adapted an accommodating, equivocal pattern, trying to please or at least second-guess everyone around me. But now I can choose a different stance as I relearn how to be centered in self, realizing that it is different from being self-centered.
At midlife, the herons call to me to leave behind those old ways and proudly fly my own course. May we all stretch and affirm our sense of self, stretch our wings, and rise with care and purpose; deciding for ourselves where to stand or settle. May we, like the herons, move beyond fear.
The Great Blue Heron
spreads his grace-filled
wings in a meditative flight,
having never known
the need to rush, all he ever
needed is within his reach.
—Patricia G. Rourke
"The Great Silence"
FJ Aug. 1998
Might not prayerfulness be part of our survival instinct belonging more to the wilderness than to the church? And just as we have become somewhat alienated from nature and its cycles, could it be that we are also estranged from our instinctive capacity for prayer and need to understand it afresh from the example of the natural world?
The Prayer Tree
V. Wind Rushing Herons, Autumn Energy
Late October: no frost yet and a salmon-striped sunrise seen through the woods beyond my fence. Time to climb over the fence to jog and enjoy the season before I get to work. A windy morning, chilly, the sky gray, the red-yellow-brown leaves more than half blown from the trees around the lake. Just as I emerge at my lookout spot on the point, a heron rises up from nearby, and then a second one comes winging over my head. I stand and follow their paths as they fly first east with the wind and then west against it.
Oddly, they aren’t just moving farther off from an intruder, they are circling around and around, across the wind-ruffled lake and back again several times. Each time they wing slowly towards me against the wind and then zoom away like feathered rockets, with the wind behind them. Soon they are joined by a third heron, sweeping low along the water and exposed tree stumps, angling high into the sky to make a triangular pattern of windborn black silhouettes.
I try watching these windy-day herons through binoculars but can barely keep focus on two at a time, never all three. Occasionally I lose sight of one or another, or one alights briefly on the lake or a tall pine; but they don’t seem to want to settle, and first one, then the other, ascends once more, confidently breasting the wind. More accurately, perhaps the herons are disinclined to be still on a day so stirred by wind. Like the leaves being tossed and torn off their branches, the herons do not resist, but soar and swoop with the rushing air.
Such energetic company! The wind is cold but invigorating today, and the herons of this morning are fast-moving sky artists, not their usual stately selves. I turn into the wind myself, ready to trot home through the swirling autumn leaves, and know that I too will be vigorous and joyful.
Great herons rising
high against buffeting winds:
May we soar with them.
—Caroline Balderston Parry
VI. Winter Heron Thoughts
Out early in the cold air, snow crisp underneath, and the sunlight brilliant, I decide to ski right across Mud Lake, passing the newer beaver lodge, inspecting a muskrat home en route, all the way to the swampy-now-icey east end and back. As my skis rhythmically skim the surface, crunching more than cutting through the snow, I realize that I seem to be on a kind of heron patrol, visiting all the sites where I so often see herons standing in the warm weather, when I am usually confined to the shore. Near the old beaver lodge I even find some of the silvered curving stumps that in some lights deceive me into thinking they themselves are herons.
Winter seems so absolute in mid-February that it’s hard to recall all the growing season colors of green leaves, orange jewelweed, and purple loosestrife stalks—all I can see of them today are dry brown stems and branches, sharp outlines against the hard whiteness of the lake. And yet, just as I know the herons will return, so will summer. I tell myself firmly that this is always so, despite the snow—and notice with joy how the sun has melted a little hollow around each stump and stick protruding through the ice. Wherever there is a darker surface to soak up the sunlight, the warmth is slowly winning. The days are lengthening, and soon this frozen white expanse will crack and melt. Then there will be feathered wings beating across Mud Lake, making different sounds than my swift sliding skis.
So too, the spiritual life with its mystical inner heartbeat is always beating around me, around all of us, if we can only stop to notice. Sometimes we sense a divine universal pulse as we watch the seasons shift or listen to the wild birds or the rushing river rapids. Sometimes we need silence to remind ourselves; sometimes it comes upon us in medias res, in the middle of the river of life—or of a frozen lake.
Now, in the evening, I sit by the window, look out at the mountain, close my eyes, and hundreds of wings come toward me. So many wings inside me, a heart full of wings, arms, toes, brain, tongue, all wings. And a huge motion goes through me, and we travel together.
—Burghild Nina Holzer
A Walk between Heaven and Earth
VII. Herons and a Sense of Homecoming
During the months I was teaching in Oxfordshire, I hardly saw any herons, let alone had any real moments of what I might call heron communion. I wondered about this lack from time to time, especially as my initial visit to the school had been crowned by a slow heron winging across those green hills, steady, high, and confident. That heron seemed to confirm my sense that this opportunity was the right next step for me to take. After I came back to work at Sibford School as "writer in residence," however, I never saw another heron in that area. Undeterred, I kept writing away faithfully on this manuscript, periodically musing about any possible meaning in my lack of actual heron sightings that felt spiritually important.
When I come home to Britannia and Mud Lake once more, and when the flurry of arrival and unpacking, visitors and neighbors welcoming me back subsides, I naturally head off to look for "my herons." It is the third evening after my return, and the end-of-August light is golden across the dry fields and trees. I bike along the northern edge of Mud Lake, following the little supply road to the filtration plant until I come to the gates, and I turn off onto a spit of land where the beavers have gnawed down all the saplings and even some substantial maples.
Parking the bike, I follow a short trail through the tall loosestrife and reeds. I quietly step out onto the damp earth at the end of the point, and a big fellow, vivid and still, immediately catches my gaze! More accurately, the late sunlight illumines the broad white streak of feathers beneath the bill of a standing heron. Near enough to be very clear, yet too far off to be alarmed by my appearance, he seems to be basking in the evening while all around him other waterfowl are busy with their incessant swimming and feeding. Far off, where shadows reach across the lake, I can also make out the fast- moving shape of a beaver, the quiet prow of its black head only half visible, water rippling softly behind.
Sudden tears stream down my face. Taking all this old familiar beauty in, especially sighting the heron, touches me deeply; my spirit feels jubilant. It is as if I am inwardly exclaiming, "Oh there all you creatures are at last!" When I spot another and then another heron in the distance, it seems as if they respond, "Of course, we are always here, what did you expect?" Blowing my nose, eyes blurry, I watch one heron fly low across the glassy lake waters that reflect the wide-winged image I hold so dear. Inwardly, I reaffirm that I will continue to spread my own wings, continue to trust that Spirit will match and meet my human efforts. Tearfully, thankfully, I truly know I am home once more.
VIII. Heron Alignment
I am lying on a towel on the floor in a body awareness class, along with about half-a-dozen other women, and the leader is talking us through a series of moves. It is early on a Saturday morning in June, warm enough to be wearing just a T-shirt and shorts. My T-shirt happens to sport a glorious heron image; it was a birthday gift from a friend who knew how pleased I would be with it.
The floor is hard beneath my back, yet my body is fairly relaxed and my mind feels present in the moment, aware of each small movement task we are asked to do. "Notice your shoulder blades," I hear the leader say, "check whether they are both equally in contact with the floor. Are they different? Feel how your spine touches the floor, feel each vertebra." When she finishes leading us through our trunks and limbs, she suggests we concentrate on our heads. "Turn your head to the left side and try not to be tense in your neck. Now let the plane of your chin be parallel to the top of your shoulder. With your eyes closed, in this position imagine that your nose is pointing to the left, and breathe in deeply."
Suddenly I am filled with an unexpected merriment, an inner chuckling contentment! As I focus my awareness on my nose, I realize my own nose is lined up with the sharp, pointing beak of the large heron head-and-shoulders portrait on the T-shirt that covers my breast. My T-shirt heron is drawn in a side view, with its S-curve neck, head plumes, and strong beak all turned to the left, as my head now is. It is totally surprising, yet seems so fitting, and funny too, to consider that I myself am long-necked and also have a straight, pointed nose!
I often think of myself as like a heron, but this moment carries more meaning than that simple recognition. Here, aware of the warm summer air around me and the position of each bone and fingertip resting on the rough towel surface beneath me, I have a profound sense of once again lining myself up to the Divine. It’s as if the heron image has drawn my attention to—no, literally pointed the way to—the Great Alignment. My nose is parallel to the painted heron’s, my heart is open to the universe, and quiet happiness suffuses me, top of head to tip of toe.