I’m back on the lovely Anna Maria Island in Florida for two weeks. It’s July and it’s hot. Too hot. But in the early mornings, as the sun rises, there is a white light that envelops those who run and walk while there is still air to breathe.
Against one side of the island laps the Gulf of Mexico, warm and weedy after storms. On the other side, there are the marinas housing the many crafts that swarm in these waters. ‘The sound of money,’ remarked one man to me as yet another vessel sped past churning up the sea, its engine drowning out the laugher of the beautiful people hanging off the sides. Somehow I thought of Daisy Buchanan and her voice that sounded like money.
I thought of her again when I found one of my ‘boys.’ I was walking along Marina Drive just as the sun was rising. I stopped to watch an Ibis poking his curved red bill into the soil in search of breakfast when ‘he’ swooped towards me and settled on one of the marina’s posts nearby. I was transfixed. A gorgeous tall blue heron, distant cousin to the local variety that have come to mean so much to me in recent months. I could almost have reached out and touched him and I felt a frisson of joy when he looked straight at me and held my gaze.
They’re all different. Birds. On a nearby rooftop, lured by a pond, rested a collection of other Florida familiars: several snowy egrets tossed their punk-like hair while two wood storks, a ‘threatened’ species, hunched over in a sulk, looking down their long beaks at their unlikely pink feet. They struck me as ugly: two veterans, old before their time. At almost 60, I don't want that to be me.
The heron, in contrast, is elegant and poised. He elongates his neck and balances like a ballerina en pointe. It is his stillness that delights and draws me, however, as I come to the end of a busy term and, moreover, my teaching career. All through the difficult winter of decision making, the heron stood as a symbol of waiting and watching, of quiet and content amidst the other voices.
I remember the day in Victoria Park when my grandson Finlay and I came across seven or more herons lazing on a mud bank. It was a rare warm and sunny spring day and I amused Finlay by inviting him to lie down on the grass with me. We lay together like snow angels without the snow, making shapes in the grass and ignoring the stares of strangers. Why do we sometimes need the excuse of small children to do something spontaneous and silly? Little did he know, but Finlay was sharing a moment, an epiphany. It’s ok to not know what’s ahead. It’s good to take time out to reflect, to think, to imagine and dream. Teachers have all the answers, but at present I have none. It’s back to nature: to the birds and the trees and the sky and the stars for me. Back to noticing and wondering and hoping.
My heron stood absolutely still. They can do this for hours. Wasting time – being the herons they were born to be, without rush or regret. At the base of his beautiful neck hangs a flapper-like fringe, silky and delicate. Daisy Buchanan again, except that she was never still and cried out in frustration:
“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon…and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” (The Great Gatsby)
I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m with Wendell Berry on this one:
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night, at the least sound
In fear at 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.
(The Peace of Wild Things)