Here’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d be writing when I woke up this morning. I live near a heronry.
That’s right, just a few hundreds yards north of my little bunkbed in Southside Richmond lies a heronry, which is, so they tell me, the proper name for a group of breeding herons. They also tell me that heronry is a more precise term than rookery, which is used to describe any colony of breeding animals.
A heronry can include anywhere from 5 to 500 pairs of nesting herons, with 150 pairs being the size of your run-of-the-mill heronry. Heron nests are awkward stick affairs, nestled high up in trees on islands or wetlands near rivers. Which happens to be exactly where my heronry is located, on an island square in the middle of the James River.
It’s at the so-called “Falls of the James,” within easy walking distance from Richmond’s Shockoe Slip. They call it the “Falls,” but that’s a little ostentatious. More like gentle rapids, really. So gentle, in fact, that it provides an inviting habitat for the Great Blue Herons that have come to nest here in Richmond.
The heronry in Richmond is believed to have started last year, with only a dozen nests or so. This year it has grown to over 30 nests, each containing from 3-6 pale blue eggs laid by the females. Because heron reproduction is extremely sensitive to human disturbance, the birds usually take great pains to locate their nests far away from human traffic. It is apparently quite rare for so many birds to locate a heronry so close to a large population site.
Still, here they are.
A bird-watching author speaking to a local newspaper said “It's really extraordinary -- you are right in the shadow of the skyscrapers down there. It’s a real treasure for downtown Richmond.” Ironically, and despite the fact that repeated human intrusion often results in nest failure, the paper went ahead and published very specific instructions telling its readers how to get perilously close to the nests.
Fortunately, those instructions were not only perilous to the herons, but to the readers as well, asking sightseers to walk a half mile on top of a corroded steel drain pipe, over the swirling currents below. I can’t be certain, but I doubt that too many people have been willing to risk the trip.
Herons, specifically Great Blue Herons, have fascinated me as far back as I can remember. A large, broad-winged wading bird common to the Southeast United States I call home, herons have always struck me as particularly Asian, in character if not in origin. It is easy to imagine, for example, the graceful, blue-gray sweep of the heron’s neck on a Japanese print hanging in an Asian Studies museum somewhere. And the curves and lines of the heron’s body and legs recall nothing so much as some antique Chinese vase. All in all, the bird seems to have been tailor-made for the Asian aesthetic.
Now, I can’t recall the first time I ever saw a heron in the wild. Growing up on a farm, surrounded by forests and wetlands, I’m certain I’ve been catching wayward glimpses of the birds since my earliest years. But my fondest “heron memory,” if you will, the one that makes me do a double take every time I catch a glimpse of one of the birds from the corner of my eye, comes not from the farm, but from the city, a dozen years ago, my first years working in Washington, D.C.
Back then, I was young and full of beans, and had decided that the way to escape the crushing weight of my commute was to run downtown into work each morning. I would leave clothes for the week in my office closet, and make my way in each morning on the towpath running alongside the canal, which in turn ran alongside the Potomac River as it made its way into Georgetown.
It was an audacious plan, full of the daring and enthusiasm I could muster in my youth for things I hadn't fully thought through yet. Although in time I would succumb to "overuse" injuries (a polite way of saying I got old), I enjoyed several years of early morning running along some of the most stunning scenery in our nation's Capital.
And I didn't do it alone.
I had a splendid Great Blue Heron for company. She (I think it was a she) had nested in the canal near where I began my run each morning. As I would approach, she would spread those magnificent blue-gray wings and take off. Slowly, gracefully, almost reluctantly, as if she considered me a nuisance, and would prefer not to be bothered. She always flew down the canal, pressing ahead in the same direction I was running, so when she would land further down the path, it was only a matter of time before I would be on her again. Then she would just repeat the process, taking off and landing in front of me all the way into town.
Now maybe it was the serene beauty of the landscape. Maybe it was the rhythm of the run. Whatever it was, I had some of the best ideas of my early legal career running on that towpath. The intuitive leap that helped me grasp a client's trade secret for manufacturing inhalation anesthetics. The breath of inspiration that helped me distinguish a critical California precedent that threatened my client in an inverse condemnation action. The slow bloom of understanding that helped me accept and deal with my client's own wrongdoing in a professor's discrimination action. These may not seem like much, but they formed the cornerstone of my career, giving me the confidence and insight to move forward.
And my heron was there for each one of them. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say she was a good luck charm, but I definitely came to associate her with such moments of inspiration. And something about the smooth, near-effortless sweep of her wings in flight called to mind the fluid ease of thought that comes with such inspired moments, which, coming as they do from outside myself, are the only creative thoughts on which I can truly rely.
I know another way to get to that heronry in the James River. A back way, one the newspaper doesn't know about. I know a lot of back ways in Richmond. I walk to meetings every night, sometimes for hours upon hours at a time. If you give me a spot in Richmond to walk to, I can tell you the best, fastest, or prettiest way to get there.
So the other day I made my own way to the heron's island. I'll just say "train tracks," and leave it at that. I stopped to watch them, dozens at a time as they walked, fought, and courted their way up and down the beach. Then I saw something I'd never seen before.
An albino heron. I wasn't sure what it was at first. It looked just like the other herons, even acted like them, but instead of the blue-gray of the other herons, this one was a beautiful snowy white. I stood transfixed, unsure whether to believe my eyes, or if such a thing really existed. I've since looked it up, on the Internet of course, and have confirmed that albino herons do, indeed, exist. They are rare, to be sure, but they are not unknown.
Now, I'd always known albinism was a handicap in the wild. Most creatures at least try not to stand out. The albino can do nothing but stand out. And this albino heron was no exception. His feathers looked like a splash of white paint thrown onto the blues, browns, and greens of the waterfront.
He was beautiful, but not because of anything he did. Not even because of the way he moved, which was the same as the other, colored, herons. No, he was beautiful simply because he was different. Starkly, strikingly different.
As I watched, I realized that it was a handicap of an entirely different sort. The other herons treated the albino differently. I suppose you could say cruelly. They ran away from him, shunning him for his uniqueness. That, or they attacked him, trying to drive him off.
Again, not because of anything he did, but simply because of what he was. The very thing that made him effortlessly beautiful was also the very thing that made him vulnerable, to predator and fellow heron alike.
Such is beauty.