The first time I saw the heron I was riding along Sugar Creek on one of my very first commutes, years ago, when I used to still slow down to cross the little footbridges that traverse the creek. In fact, when I saw the heron on that long ago morning that’s exactly what I was doing, slowing down , making the sharp turn, and riding shakily over the creek hoping I didn’t go into the water and you know, die. I must have startled the heron who was probably hiding out under the bridge. Then so suddenly, like a flash of magic, the heron flew up, not more than two feet from where I was riding, right out from under the bridge. I gasped, nearly fell over, nearly fainted with how startled I was by that moment. It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten because of how stunning that blue/gray heron was. If you’ve never seen one up close, they are these spectacular birds that look rather like nothing when they are walking across the creek with their wings tucked. Their bodies don’t seem very much larger than that of a duck, they just have longer legs. But then they spread their wings and you notice all they didn’t seem to be at first. What startled me is how he seemed to transform before my eyes into this grand and graceful being from next to nothing, once he spread his wings.
I’ve watched the heron on Sugar Creek for years. I stop and take pictures a lot of the time. On really cold days I watch him hunkered down in the creek trying to make his body as small as possible, like he’s holding in heat. I don’t know how to say this, because even though I never really expect to see the heron (he’s quite elusive), when I do I feel a most profound sense of home. That quiet bird fills me with joy and with peace. The peace is in the stillness and the joy is in the flight, that sudden burst of movement which reminds me of quick and unexpected laughter.
The last time I saw the heron was on Tuesday evening, which was also the first day I smelled the toxic stench of what I now know was diesel. I first thought the stench was on the air, something…anything…but not coming from the creek because the idea that anything so ridiculously poisonous would go into the creek is insane. I was riding up to one of those footbridges when I saw him hunkered down in the creek, right next to the bridge. He seemed to shiver slightly and was maybe as small as I’ve ever seen him. My throat clenched and I couldn’t tell if it came from the stench or the smallness of that bird, just then.
Since then I’ve wondered what happened to the heron. I haven’t seen any reports that he/she/they were found dead or alive. In the days since the spill I’m a little haunted by that last memory of him hunkered down in the creek. I keep wondering what’s wrong in a world where we don’t even blink at what goes into our creeks, streams, oceans, earth, wildlife…our own bodies.
The heron moved me because for all these years I’ve commuted and for the last two years when I’ve almost exclusively commuted, the heron and I have shared the same small patch of earth. I recognize that it is his earth as well as mine. On freezing mornings we’re both cold and on hot ones we both long for the same shade, the same breeze. I don’t separate my fate from the fate of the heron. The same diesel that poisons him will poison me.
On Wednesday morning I rode my bike over to Park Road Shopping Center to meet my brother and his family who’d come into town for lunch. I took the greenway because it’s how I always get to that part of town, but the smell was so awful that I could hardly stomach it. There was something worse than the stench though, and that was the awful silence of nothing. I’ve never seen it so empty as it was that morning. It’s generally teeming with life. It was light out so I could see the sludge on top of the creek. At its thickest it looked like brown paint. The people who’d come down to walk held their noses (once again, diesel is poison to all of us, not just to the heron, ducks and fish) and were horrified and surprised. I am constantly reminded on my bike that we’ve only got this one planet, this one earth…what happens to the planet because of carelessness and greed happens to the ducks…happens to the heron…happens to the humans…happens to us all.