Wednesday, April 06, 2011

`As If They Need Only to Fly Away'

A woman with severe osteoporosis leaned across a rail fence in the arboretum, peering through binoculars at a brown bit of fuss on the leaf-covered ground, five yards from our feet. I stood behind her, trying to be quiet and motionless, squinting into the forest shadows. She lowered her field glasses and said, “I’m gone two weeks and everything changes. Who is this little fellow?” We agreed he was probably a sparrow, feeding on insects among the dead oak leaves and pine needles, but the shadows and his mottled coloration made naming the species difficult for a couple of ornithological dilettantes.

Further up the path we came to a wooden dock built into a marshy pond. The water was dense with lily pads and duckweed, and two turtles sunned on a half-submerged log. The water was the color of strong tea. At the end of the dock, a middle-aged couple stood with the theatrical stiffness that says: “Don’t move. You might scare it away.” In the weeds below the dock, gray as a Pacific Northwest sky, was a yellow-crowned night heron, the great blue heron’s homelier but still striking cousin. For fifteen minutes I watched the bird methodically make his way through the weeds, probably looking for fish or crawfish. I moved on when the family grew conspicuously impatient. I had never stood so close (six feet) for so long to so large a wading bird.

In another pond I counted fourteen turtles on one log. When we stood at the end of the dock, dozens of them swam toward us, apparently trained to expect lunch. I turned over stones and rotting logs in the woods, hoping to find worms or beetles, but Houston has been dry. I laid flat on the dock, leaned over the end and scratched a foot-long turtle on his head and the back of his shell before he dove. Edward Hoagland begins his best essay, “The Courage of Turtles,” like this:

“Turtles are a kind of bird with the governor turned low. With the same attitude of removal, they cock a glance at what is going on, as if they need only to fly away.”

Birds I enjoy; turtles I admire.


William A. Sigler said...

Serendipity. I saw a white heron this morning from the train. The Ancient Greeks considered this a sign of spring and re-birth. Because it is such a patient, persistent fisher, many cultures also considered the heron a symbol of wisdom, an interesting thought given the obvious impatience of those around you. A nice string of posts about Houston, btw.

Nige said...

Over here our herons (Grey Herons) have in recent years become town birds, virtually tame and very numerous. They haunt my local ponds, compete with the ducks and gulls for thrown bread, and stand fearlessly within a few feet of humans and passing cars. This has taken away a lot of their mystique, but offers the chance of admiring their beautiful plumage close up. I wonder if your herons will follow the same path.

Fran Manushkin said...

Green Herons nest in New York's Central Park. A few years ago I watched one catching fish over and over. He had great aim! We also have black-crowned night herons in Turtle Pond (along with numerous turtles and ducks). Sadly, the ducklings decrease when the herons show up.

Helen Pinkerton said...

For years there was a magnificent great blue heron that was accustomed to stand serenely in a wild-oat field along San Francisquito Creek and in late afternoon gaze at the heavy commuting traffic along Sand Hill Rd. where Silicon Valley offices throng. However, when multiple apartments for Stanford graduate students were built there, the heron fled. I don't doubt that he was a better symbol of wisdom than the high tech commuters.