There was a period of time–six or nine months–when I became obsessed with Great Blue Herons. Or not really obsessed, exactly. Obsession holds too much weight, and this was something else: a strange, floating fascination with the way they showed up in my life. An ephemeral kind of longing to see those long legs dangling behind two wide wings blotting out a piece of blue, a neck kinked into a hard s-shape. I kept an eye cocked to the sky watching, crept quietly through Reed Canyon to see them. Whenever I was looking they wouldn’t appear, so I learned not to force it and instead waited to be surprised. To the mind I had then, I knew they were a sign. A directive. “They’re my call to action,” I tell my sister.
Now I’m not so sure.
* * *
There might be something to it, though, if I look at the total of my life. If I string each encounter up like pearls, I might come out wearing a necklace: something beautiful, perfect, a whole made out of small disparate parts. Or I could come out with the same nothing I’ve been holding, fists grasping after beads rolling away on the floor.
When I was a child, in first or second grade, I went to a week-long art camp at Mrs. Holland’s house. She had a beautiful, rambling garden, a baker husband named Beau, and a big white dog. I remember making wire statues with just one long wire and watercolors in the afternoon, the colors hazy but the vision of my own hands clear. Not the way I know them now, marked with fifteen more years of scars, but the way they were then: smooth, puffy, shiny. I made what I thought was one perfect drawing with those hands. A heron, standing in the center of an off-white page, painstakingly pressed into the paper with charcoal. It’s a simple drawing, but you can see in it my effort. I don’t remember seeing the heron that it’s based on but I remember drawing it, or I think I do. I remember the sweat from my hand smearing the charcoal and the way it felt gripped between my fingers in the strange way I hold pencils, fingers overlapped and too tightly. I remember not wanting to add anything else around the bird because I thought it would ruin it. Later, at the end of the week camp party, I overheard Mrs. Holland talking about it with my mom, or maybe she let me overhear it, the way you indulge quiet and observant children who are desperate for attention.
“Isn’t it lovely?” Mrs. Holland said. She gestured at the lines, made a point of my concentration. The simplicity. Nothing else is in the picture but the heron. It’s tucked into a box at my parents’ house now but they kept it up in the house for a long time, my finest piece. This I think was the first heron.
* * *
The second heron I remember I saw cradled in my father’s arms, carried through our living room and out the back doors to the deck beyond, which overlooked Johnson Creek. Growing up, our house had a pond in the middle of it, enclosed by an atrium in the center of the house that opened to the sky, accessible by a sliding glass door. We’d been on vacation one summer when I was twelve or thirteen, and came home to discover the heron ferociously beating his wings against the glass. We assumed he’d come down to the pond to make a snack of our Koi fish, who we discovered hiding beneath the lip of the rocks surrounding the pond. Rusty brown smears were left on the windows from the heron’s attempts at escape, gone nearly translucent in the light. Herons can’t fly straight up, we would learn later, so this one was trapped in our strange fish bowl pond.
We watched with trepidation as my dad waded into the pond with a blanket, tossing it gently over the bird, then picked the bundle up as if it were a baby and walked outside to the deck. The heron hopped up on the railing, gave us a disgruntled look over his shoulder, then flew off.
My dad marveled when he came back in. It was like carrying air, he said. Just no weight.
* * *
The last heron I saw in what I think of as the early time–before all the rest of it began–was in New Orleans, where I went to college. Walking home from school one day, I caught the glimpse of feathers out of the corner of my eye and turned to see just a brief flash of those long, strange legs making the block. I followed, tugged along by some invisible thread, and watched the bird walk down the street at a stately pace. On either side of the neighborhood drive were live oaks, small ferns sprouting cheerfully from the Y in their deep branches, blocking the mid-day sun from making the day unbearable. I remember the desperate urge to shout at the heron, to wave him away. You’re in the wrong place! I wanted to say. You’ve taken a wrong turn. But instead I watched him with held breath as he kept going, walking like air, looking at my neighbors’ houses with interest.
* * *
Much later, when I’d long since left New Orleans behind and returned home to Portland, I took these early experiences with herons as proof that what I began to see later was real. Here was my evidence of a pattern, something I could sink my teeth into when the loud internal chorus of rebuttals began to rise up in opposition to what I thought I was seeing. But it’s always been happening, I would argue to myself. This is something special.
* * *
It started in January, my connection to the herons. I was gripped by anxiety that manifested, in part, as a deep suspicion of strangers. I was afraid constantly that some unnamed bad was always about to happen, some misfortune wrought upon me by another human’s hands. As it got worse, the fear morphed. No longer just the anticipation of something terrible, it became the certainty that the terrible was happening, I just couldn’t pinpoint what it was yet. Walks in my neighborhood with my dog were suddenly fraught, I was afraid to be alone in my house, I couldn’t take public transportation anymore. Everything made me jumpy and fearful, my nervous system constantly on edge. I can’t emphasize enough that I had no rational reason to be this paranoid, but it’s what felt real to me.
I hadn’t been hit out of the blue, but it surprised me all the same. Perhaps it had been building for years, but when I finally reached the fulcrum, the tip over to not ok still hurt. I had no name then for how I felt, because rarely did I think about how I actually felt: what mattered to me at the time was what I was making. I was in my second year of grad school and working myself to the bone: teaching, writing, networking. I was in a relationship that I wanted but was not wanted in, my thesis was looming, my sister was getting married, I was sick all the time, I had a research project I had to do but didn’t care about. I felt sure I was failing everyone who had the misfortune of believing in me–my thesis advisor, my teaching mentor, my agent, my friends–and that when they reassured me they were proud of me, I was convinced they were lying because they could see how pathetic I was. This, then, was how I convinced myself that everyone was just putting up with me because they felt sorry for me. Unable to stand the thought of people not liking me, I would take on more things in an effort to prove myself worthy of attention: host parties, do favors, take on volunteer work.
And yet, my self-esteem was still guttered. It wasn’t helped by the voice in my head constantly repeating don’t be a fucking idiot.
My natural tendency to withdraw–to hide, both physically and mentally–was getting more pronounced, so though I hated to be alone I was also miserable in company. I rarely saw friends and didn’t want to go out. The only coping mechanism for stress I’d learned throughout my life was to outwork it, even while that very behavior was the thing hurting me. My family’s long ingrained belief that as long as something appeared fine it was fine wasn’t serving me either, but I didn’t know how to stop. I don’t think, even now, anyone but my therapist and my little sister could see that I was not well but didn’t know how to ask for help.
I have a recurring image of myself at the time: hunched over with stringy hair, dark circles under my eyes, hands shaking, trying to light a cigarette. If my outside had matched my inside, that’s how I would’ve looked. Strung out and desperate. Maybe if I looked the way I felt, I could have asked for help sooner. Someone would have known how bad things had gotten inside my head. Instead I was the way I always was: put together and poised. Shiny. Clean. Don’t worry about me!, my long straight hair said. I’m alright! I was five pounds heavier than I normally was–that was, as far as I knew, the only tell.
The problem was that I was still functioning so highly. I flew to Pittsburgh to present at a conference, I defended my thesis with ease, I got As in all my classes, I taught classes to students who raved about my performance. I hosted parties and helped my friends and worked with my agent to finish a book. I don’t say this to boast, only to demonstrate the distance between what I appeared to be and what I really was. The only inkling I actually had that something was wrong with me was that I was scared all the time. And I had a vision of myself that told the truth. My hands were shaking. I needed a smoke.
Except I have never even tried a cigarette. And if my hands shake I clench them into fists.
* * *
Enter herons. Not in waves, just one at a time. Here and there. I’d be lost in a fog of my own making, driving across Ross Island Bridge, and there a heron would be: a soft charcoal smudge flying above the endless stream of taillights, body gently bobbing with each beat of their wings. Or I’d be sitting at the bottom of the canyon at Reed College, paused on a walk with my dog, and see one standing with one leg half-cocked out of the water. Once, two nearly hit the windshield when I was driving with my sister, their funny toe-knuckles almost kissing the glass. I would see them maybe once a week, either while I was driving or walking. Herons in the sky, herons in the water, herons taking off from where I startled them in the creek behind my parents’ house. I even began to dream of them: in one vivid memory, I have the vantage point of the sky, and watch them fly as if I were alongside them instead of stuck down below on the ground.
Great Blue Herons are not uncommon birds. They live in the wet borderlands between water and land throughout the country, equally at home in fresh and saltwater. And I am used to a life outside. It isn’t surprising that I encountered them as much as I felt I did, and still sometimes do. Like a muscle, watching for birds can be a skill that’s strengthened over time, and it’s one I’d been using my whole life. In this time I also saw countless hawks, the red-tail my particular favorite, and spent the better part of an afternoon watching the barred owl that lives in my neighborhood from a secret spot a few feet away from his tree. I like birds. I look for them.
But the herons still felt important to me, different somehow and therefore special. When I would encounter them it would have a tangible quality, like seeing them had a texture. I would be going along on a day that felt like corduroy and hit a patch of smooth silk if I saw a heron, suddenly lifted out of mundanity and into something larger than myself. Whenever I would see one I would write it down in my journal, and if I flip through old pages now I can see how much harder I pressed the pen on the word heron, making the text look letterpressed.
* * *
Heron today at the light on 49th, I wrote, underlining heron.
* * *
Saw another heron at Reed, I put another time. Fishing by the peninsula, totally still even though the ducks were causing a ruckus. I want to live like a heron.
* * *
This maybe was the crux of things: I was seeking heron-ness. Or maybe I had been heron-like once, and was now reckoning with a dissolving self-image, holding an only very tenuous grip on the identity I’d once had firmly in hand. In a big, boisterous family I’d learned how to tune out the clamor of the people around me while in pursuit of the quieter activities that fed me: reading, writing, drawing. It became a hallmark of my personality later on too, in that I was always able to stay remarkably calm and rational in the face of other people’s emotions and situational stressors. I saw myself as a heron, taking everything in while staying totally still. Nothing, I thought, could touch me. It didn’t for a very long time. When I saw herons I thought I was seeing a reminder of who I was, who I could be, even while that person was falling apart at the seams.
The closer I looked though, the more I realized that I was not heron-like at all. Not really. What I thought was calm, quiet stillness was instead the paralyzing fear of a prey animal. It was the quiet quake at the first hint of a shadow, the stillness a defense against being seen at all. I was not the heron. My legs didn’t move with stately grace through ankle deep water, I felt no flex in my clawed toes as I walked a rocky riverbed. The breeze wasn’t riffling the little black feather that swooped from the top of my head, I had no bright, blinking eyes. Across my chest a powerful band of muscle did not emerge to take me airborne. I was never taking flight. Instead, I felt myself the quicksilver flash of a fish between the heron’s legs, or maybe, at best, a rabbit. My soft furred body still while my heart beat in panic.
As my anxiety worsened and winter turned to spring, I tried to puzzle out what the herons might mean. I resisted the impulse to look them up in any kind of indigenous belief system, though I’m aware that animals hold particularly sacred places as medicine for many tribes. But I was wary of being appropriative, and am still now. Whatever meaning they held would have to be something I made, I was sure of it. I could not take it from anyone else. It felt like a riddle, something solvable. A question I should have the answer to, if only I worked hard enough to understand it. I clung to it, however illogical. The stakes then were high, because I had convinced myself without even really knowing it that if I could just solve this I could fix myself. I would not be the nervous, shaking, anxiety-riddled rabbit. If I could do this, if I could just figure it out, I would be fine.
* * *
I tell my sister they’re my call to action because for a time I think they are telling me to be more honest with myself about what I want. Then I think maybe it’s really that I have to think more deeply about how I feel, and then communicate that more clearly to the people around me. No, then it’s to be a better hunter, to really be calm and sure, and strike with purpose. I broke one morning, the day still pearly, walking to the bus I was making myself take because I couldn’t afford the safety of my car–parking was too expensive for a day on campus.
A heron flew overhead and tears sprang to my eyes. “What do you want?” I whispered out loud, a few feet away from the regular crowd at my stop. What do you want from me?
* * *
There are a thousand explanations for how often I saw herons then. I was looking for them, for one, and I live near water. I’m a good bird watcher. Maybe it was a good hatch year. I can think this now because the heron time is over. I’m on the other side, no longer walking through fog. I am not staring at the sky anymore, waiting for something different to appear. Now I can see into the middle distance and not be so afraid.
* * *
I have so much tenderness for the person I was then, for how hard I was trying. How desperately I was reaching for connection, hurting and hopeful for companionship but deeply distrustful of anything that might look like it from a human. What I needed was someone to say I see you, and I love you, and you don’t have to try so hard to be worthy. You already are. What you’re doing is enough. In some small way maybe all that meaning making was an attempt to offer it to myself, to paint myself into a larger web. A little self-mythologizing as a way to heal.
* * *
At my parents’ house the other day a heron took off from the creek while I was just a few feet away, walking down to the water’s edge with my dog. The heron’s wingspan spread to nearly either side of the water, the long flight at 45 degrees a kind of elegance unmatched here on land. I stood mute, watching, letting the quiet seep into my bones. Not paralyzed, just still. Not a message, just an old friend.
* * *
Lauren Hobson lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from Portland State University, where she also teaches. Her work has appeared in Riverteeth, Backcountry, and elsewhere. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably outside with her dog, Cedar.
featured photo courtesy of the author