Sunday Miscellany: The Heron is Present

Ink sketch by me

When I moved house in 2019 I started noticing a heron living in the river nearby, and got completely obsessed with it. I tried to make some sense of why for this piece for Sunday Miscellany, which was broadcast last summer.

One evening, a few months after this broadcast, when the moon was big and full and pink, I saw four herons together at the seafront. It was like the moon’s strange power had drawn them there. 

You can listen to the essay on Sunday Miscellany here via RTÉ Culture.

The Heron Is Present

In autumn of 2019 I moved from the southside to the northside of Dublin, and set about exploring my new neighbourhood. Soon I fell in love with being so near the sea, and not long after that I became intrigued by a local heron.

While walking along the Clontarf seafront, I’d see it standing there, silent in the shallows, unmoving. It seemed oblivious to the world around it, and certainly it ignored me every time I fumbled for my phone to take a photo of it. A photo that could never perfectly capture why this bird grew to captivate me.

It was something to do with this grey heron’s refusal to engage with the frenetic pace of everything else around it. No matter that metres away, engines thrummed as cars sped down a main road. No matter the chatter of people walking past. None of that seemed to matter to the heron at all, as it focused on its task of spearing a fish or frog for its dinner.

I looked out for my heron every day, and one day I spotted it at the edge of a river that is 15 minutes’ walk from the seafront. Or was it a totally different heron? I couldn’t be sure – all I knew was every time I saw the heron my heart leapt. I decided to presume it was the same heron all the time, that it would choose to stand at the river edge or by the sea, depending on its mood.

Grey herons, or Ardea cinerea to give them their proper name, are beautiful birds, but not showy. They’re elegant and delicate, with a long narrow bill and a neck that can curve into an s-shape. They somehow both blend into and stand out from their surroundings, with their grey and white feathered body, which is bookended by a punk-rock black crest on the top of their head, and skinny fragile-seeming yellow legs.

When the coronavirus pandemic began to shut Dublin down, I put the bit of extra time I had into taking up running again. Now I saw more of my heron. And I discovered it lives in the park between the seafront and the river. I discovered too it likes to wander around the park early in the morning when there aren’t many of us humans around. Some lucky days, I would spot my heron slowly and delicately picking its way amongst the daffodils.

In Ancient Egypt, the heron was considered a divine messenger – the deity Bennu was even depicted in the shape of a heron. Bennu, in turn, was a symbol of rebirth. It’s not hard to see why the Ancient Egyptians held the heron in such great esteem: this strange, calm bird that seems to know more than us humans do about how to exist in the world peacefully.

At a time of such strangeness and anxiety, I’ve lately been turning to the heron to see what I can learn from how it reacts to the world around it. The heron and I are so different – I am not one for sitting silently, and when I worry about things I am prone to being fidgety and unfocused. The heron, if he or she worries at all, never betrays a sign of its internal distress. ‘Why rush?’ seems to be the heron’s motto.

Yet the world around my heron has changed so much in the past couple of months that I wonder if it has picked up on the tilt and shift of Dublin city. Did it wonder where the lines of buses and cars suddenly went in March? Can it detect fewer exhaust fumes? Does it ever look to the distance, at the cranes that once swung above the skeletons of office blocks, and wonder why, for many weeks, the cranes had stopped moving? Does it notice that there are more people now, in the park at all times of the day, running, walking, avoiding each other? Does it pick up on our fear?

I also wonder what the heron would say to me if we had a talk about what’s going on. Listen, I’d tell it, I’m worried right now – about the future, about what’s in store. What should I do?

I imagine it would tell me to take my head out of the future and bring it back into the moment. Because in the moment, there is stillness, and there is space. You can carve out a bit of peace for yourself in that moment.

Or maybe the heron would turn, fix me with a beady eye, and say – hey, I’m trying to catch my dinner here.

I had thought the heron to be the epitome of elegance, but it turns out it is not always. While in the park last week, I was engaged in the usual battle of trying to keep running even when I felt like I wanted to stop. Then I heard a strange sound. It was like a person turning their head from side to side while clearing their throat. It sounded gurgly and odd. I looked up, saw the flash of long grey wings in tree branches, and realised it was my heron making the funny, juvenile noise. So, I thought: The heron is wise, but the heron isn’t perfect. There’s a quirky side to it too. And on I kept running, newly energised by my discovery of the bird’s idiosyncrasy, and marvelling at how nature throws us these little surprises when we least expect them.

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