The bayous of Houston are storm sewers, 2,500 miles of concrete-lined ditches that keep a flat city from turning into swamp. For now, the drought has abated and water flows again. On Sunday, driving along T.C. Jester Boulevard near my neighborhood, I saw a great white egret standing in the stream. The bayou is twenty-five yards wide at this point and a good ten yards below street level. For five or six seconds the bird was visible, long enough for me to see it was standing on one leg in the middle of the shallow stream as though in a swamp, waiting for fish or frogs.
The bird’s appearance in the urban river, so white against gray, is heartening. Life, tougher than sentimentality, adapts. Fish and frogs flow in once-dry concrete rivers. Les Murray narrates “Cattle Egret” (Translations from the Natural World, 1992) in the first-person plural from the bird’s point of view:
“Our sleep-slow compeers, red and dun,
wade in their grazing, and whirring lives
shoal up, splintering, in skitters and dives.
Our quick beaks pincer them, one and one,
those crisps of winnow, fats of air,
the pick of chirrup—we haggle them down
full of plea, fizz, cark and stridulation,
our white plumes riffled by scads going spare.
Shadowy round us are lives that eat things dead
but life feeds our life: fight is flavor,
stinging a spice. Bodies still electric play for
my crop’s gravel jitterbug. I cross with sprung tread
where dogs tugged a baa-ing calf’s gut out, fold on fold.
Somewhere may be creatures that grow old.”