Raw, Fierce, and Primeval

The Terrifying Majesty of Herons

July 5, 2021 by

When I was about ten years old I hiked out to the back side of a swamp with my family to watch Great Blue Herons nesting. The catalyst for the trip was John Menz, a friend of my parents and an ardent amateur naturalist, who burst into our house one spring evening and stood almost bouncing with excitement in the middle of our living room.

“You have to see this!” he said, “Six Great Blue Heron nests in the top of a tree!”

It was a foregone conclusion that my parents would take our family of twelve kids out to see them. My recollections of growing up mostly revolve around my family doing things in nature: hiking out to the woods to watch foxes, hiking up mountains to look for wild orchids (a few of which my dad dug up and brought home for his garden), getting up early on Sunday morning to go watch birds. None of these got me especially excited about the natural world. It’s possible that partial color blindness did not help, or that I found books more exciting, or that I was just too lazy to be bothered. I never was able to identify birds by their song or coloring, although I did come across my favorite bird name then: the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

HEmbedPhoto by Danny Burrows

We must have made the trip on a Saturday or Sunday sometime around the end of April in an old fifteen-seater Ford van, my father driving with John directing him from the front seat. It was one of those puffy-white-cloud days; sun and shadow. We left the highway fairly early on, the center-crowned road narrowing gradually, asphalt changing to tarmac, changing to gravel; potholes changing from bumps to be driven through to craters to be driven around. As one of the youngest in the family I usually got stuck with the bumpy back, which meant I ended up sitting hunched over staring at the floor, not daring to swallow for fear of vomiting; a reservoir of saliva building up in my mouth. After miles and miles, we pulled off the road and disembarked.

We could not see the swamp, but we could smell it: the distinct odor of rotting soil and stagnant water. John led the way into the forest that closed in on either side of the road, plunging into the trees in the direction of the smell. There was no path, just dense growth of white pine, oak, maple, and ash, covered with last year’s fallen foliage and deadfalls. Twigs and small branches snapped underfoot and we had to skirt boggy places now and then. After walking a long time, the trees seemed to open out ahead and we could see the swamp stretching away: acres of green hummocks with the occasional pine skeleton showing white fingers of warning. John was leading, running off ahead, running back, suggesting better routes. After half an hour or so he told everyone to wait while he ran on ahead.

We waited on the moldering pine needles in the dusky, yellow-filtered forest light. And waited. And waited. “We’re lost,” I said, “John’s lost, and we’re in the middle of a forest next to a swamp. We’ll wander around for weeks, and no one will ever find us.” Everybody laughed at me. Large families are awesome.

And suddenly John was back, breathless, a finger from one hand across his lips, the other hand beckoning madly. We followed him, shushing loudly every time someone stepped on a branch. The first heron I saw was right overhead, just over the treetops, coming in on a long glide. It looked huge. Coming around a stand of pine trees, we were suddenly at the nesting place. The nests were high on a white pine that stood on the edge of the swamp – great unruly masses of sticks against the blue of the sky. There were chicks in the nests, a lot of them; we could see a few of their heads above the edge. They were making so much noise I doubted they could hear anything we did. The adult herons were standing up on the nests, some feeding the chicks with regurgitated frogs, some flapping round, chattering to each other. The ground beneath was absolutely splattered with bird shit; not polite little droppings but great dollops of poop let go from a hundred feet up that must have more or less exploded on impact, a good deal streaked down the sides of the tree. As we watched we saw more herons flying in and the noise from the chicks doubled as they clamored to be fed. We stood beneath the trees and watched for a long time.

It took those of us watching to another world entirely – raw, fierce, primeval. This was a completely different order of existence, a civilization with a different set of rules. It wasn’t as though I had never seen herons before. We used to see them often flying up from the river (a heron in flight looks like a goose flying backwards) or standing motionless in the shallows. From a distance they look quaint, awkward, and slightly silly; here they were predatory, a terrifying sight. On the ground, a heron is essentially an enormous beak on stilts. The Great Blue has long pale blue breast feathers that shift and blow out in the wind like a grass skirt. They have, if not beauty, a certain terrifying majesty.

I thought, in years since, that perhaps I had made the whole event more than it was. Maybe it wasn’t so extraordinary, maybe my child’s imagination constructed a significance that had never been there. When I asked my oldest brother about it, though, his memory was just as distinct. I made some calls and got hold of John Menz; one mention of the herons and he was off to the races.

Ezra Pound, a man who was unequivocally on the Wrong Side of History, writes in the poem Canto LXXXI: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world. … it is not man made courage, or made order, or made grace.” What do we know, truly, of the lives of other species right around us?

This experience did not turn me into a naturalist or convince me to join PETA, and I still know precious little about the life and habitat of Great Blue Herons. In a world abounding in so much human misery I’ve taken the view that we should focus on the needs of people before getting too carried away with the needs of animals. I don’t have a problem with large-scale farming or with eating meat; in fact I’ve always believed that the pinnacle of gastronomic development was the invention of the hot dog. And yet.

Sometimes when I read about the excesses of environmental activists, or meet up with Hunt saboteurs in their threatening black woollies, I think about the herons – the otherness and the order of their lives. The beauty of eating frogs, of having a family in a nest fifty feet up in the air, and pooping on the fly. We don’t need tears or pity for the natural world, not worked up emotion over the state of the cuddly animals. We need respect. We need reverence. We need awe.


About the author


Ian Barth

Ian lives at the Darvell community in East Sussex, UK with his wife Olivia and their four boys.

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