It was my colleague, Shoby, who pointed her out to me the first time.
“There she is; she was out there yesterday also.”
I looked up and was astonished to see a blue heron standing at the top of the slope. This area of Palo Alto where Hillview Avenue crosses Foothill Expressway is a dry landscape of commercial buildings, so a blue heron is not what you expect to see here. But there it was, standing motionless on tall slender legs, majestically eying the passersby. I spent a few motionless moments myself, eying the heron back.
Couple of days later, I encountered the heron again. I am not sure it was the same heron, though it did look the same. This time it was in the grassy meadow next to the new construction at VA hospital. The hospital is building an 80-bed psychiatric facility and in the clearing next to the construction was the blue heron. This time it looked even more out of place with the heavy equipment and construction workers in the background.
Was the heron somehow lost? Or is it an abandoned pet?
I shooed at her and she took flight. “So it is not hurt,” I thought with relief.
And for several days since then, the heron was at the hospital, seemingly inspecting the progress of the psychiatric ward construction. “Perhaps it is the reincarnation of a soldier whose life was taken in battle,” I fantasized. A soldier who gave her life in a dry, arid desert far away from home is now reborn as a heron to live in cool climes and water sheds. The heron has wandered from its watery home perhaps because it feels more at home near a place of care and healing after a violent end to its previous life.
In a certain sense, birds are ethereal creatures for they are at home in the heavens just as we imagine angels to be. The most sublime among these angels, the swan, is equally at home in water as it is in air.
In Vedantic lore, swans are considered to have mythical powers. They can extract milk from water, for example, an allegorical reference to the pure of heart who can pick out the bits of truth mixed into meaningless chatter. Hamsa, the Sanskrit word for swan, is deemed sacred enough to be used as a mantra for meditation. Maybe the humble cousin of the swan, the heron too has other worldly powers. Perhaps the heron can recall its past life and is drawn to the hospital by that memory.
Could it be that the pure of heart are reborn as birds to be able to soar free of earthly bonds? In India, even the lowly crow is occasionally considered a sacred bird associated with human souls in transit. People feed crows on auspicious days to pay homage to their ancestors. Some cultures also consider birds to be the bearer of souls that are reentering human life. In Western countries, the stork is often depicted carrying a newborn human baby.
A few days later, the BP oil well disaster was in the news. Accompanying the story were pictures of pelicans and herons covered with gunk. It was heartbreaking to see these aerial creatures rendered earthbound by crude oil spilling from the nether world. I couldn’t but help recall the heron at the hospital that I had whimsically associated with a fallen soldier, gone to fight a battle over crude. Both the war and the oil well blowup stemmed from the insatiable human thirst for oil and resulted in the death and dislocation of innocent souls. It is a sad commentary that the actions of the most conscious species bring disaster instead of comfort to the less conscious species.
Some birds’ traits would appeal strongly to us, sometimes because the traits are so human-like. The fairy-like hummingbird must eat more than its body weight every day. And since it drinks nectar from flowers while on the fly, it has developed the ability to fly backwards, the only bird able to do so. Another nectar feeding bird, the lorikeet, mates for life. Lorikeets belong to the parrot family so they can be trained to mimic human language. Emperor penguin couples do not develop lifelong bonds but are dedicated to each other for one mating season. The intriguing pilgrimage that the penguins undertake to mate, breed and bring up the young ones is the subject of many popular documentary films.
Yet again, a few days later, there was another news item that highlighted the ugly side effects of our insatiable appetite for material goods and the drive to reduce the cost of producing these goods. “FoxConn worker commits suicide,” the headline proclaimed, apparently because of unbearable working conditions on the assembly line for high-tech products. The making of high-tech products demands not only smart brains and hard toil, but also the sacrifice of a few human lives!
And the next day, there was a white egret at the hospital.
Jojy Michael lives and works in the Bay Area as an engineer. Michael dedicates this essay to the Palo Alto Veteran’s Hostpial and the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife refuge.