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Lessons in Stillness

What blue herons can teach us

For Kate Rogers

“The possibility of being present in the world in a whole, undivided way can be a gift of the animals.”
—Ladson Hinton, “A Return to the Animal Soul”

 

A PAIR OF great blue herons are on the beach early most mornings, kraaking an ancient duet of hoarse caws from the time of dinosaurs. Long, delicate legs lift off with an audible flap-and-swoop, and the whoosh of wings so wide, it’s astonishing they can fly. Low tide reveals a sandy spit of tide pools and shallow surf, a littoral zone between land and sea that is perfect fishing for these amphibious birds.

One late spring morning while listening to the news, I watched a stately great blue wade into the Salish Sea, noting her cloak of silver-slate blue feathers, sharp orange beak, and black streak highlighting a fierce, amber eye. Mesmerized by the heron’s statuesque stillness, I barely heard the reporter’s lament of yet another terrorist attack, ecological disaster, school shooting, record-shattering heat wave. What if stillness—this heron’s tranquil focus on the natural world—was also a way to navigate our human tragedies, without denying them? The bird’s full attention to the tiniest slippery fish, the shushing waves under a soft, scented wind, and the sea’s steady pulse, was a survival skill I might learn.

While contemplating the poise and grace of the blue heron, I saw something I will always remember. A man strolled onto the beach, facing the sea. Eyes closed, the man’s palms lifted in a gesture of reverence and surrender. He was murmuring in a low, gentle voice, perhaps a chant. I wondered if he was praying for the world—the human turmoil and despair I’d just heard detailed on the radio.

With a blur of six-foot wings and an otherworldly cry, another great blue rose up and landed near him on the wet sand. After studying the man intently, the heron turned trustingly away to also face the water. With mighty wings outstretched and silver plume rustling like a monk’s feathered robe, the bird sunbathed in the bright breeze. The great blue was almost as tall as the meditating man. I remember reading that in parts of Asia, herons are divine messengers.

Together, the heron and slender man seemed to hold still a world careening into chaos. There were only the lulling waves, the man’s musical chant, the heron’s serenity and faith in sun, wind, and human. Perhaps this was what the Taoist sages meant long ago when they taught that one had great lessons to learn from a calm and happy spirit. Perhaps the heron sensed that she was safe to fish and sun herself so close, right in front of a meditating man. As I witnessed the serene self-possession of both human and great blue, my whole body relaxed, rested.

Suddenly there was movement: The man lifted one lithe leg, his arms wide, in a slow-motion swirl of hands, as if he had found his own wings. Thousand-year-old movements, as he gracefully performed the ritual “crane dance” of Tai chi. Stepping deeper into the surf, sand sinking under his feet, he kept his balance.

We may well be an impermanent species; our consumption and exploitation of nature and other animals foretells the unintended consequence of our own extinction. But perhaps the pandemic and our mandatory retreat gave us a far-sighted glimpse of how much nature and other species will recover from our overstep. . . .

The great blue turned to watch the man’s flowing dance, her keen, yellow eyes taking in his imitation of movements that cranes and herons embody so naturally. Other species of cranes, like the Northwest’s sandhill cranes, perform stunning courtship dances in the lifelong ballet of their mating. Birds have an intelligence born of the far-sightedness of sky, the knowledge of wind currents, the memory of many migrations. Birds perceive through visual, tactile, auditory, and chemical stimuli, any bird site will note. But what did this heron make of a man trying to dance like her? Perhaps with her. Bird and human bonds are as ancient as these cranes. In Japan they tell an old folktale of shapeshifting, the story of the “Crane Wife.” A lonely, poor man discovers a wounded crane in the tall reeds, her luminous flank pierced by a hunter’s arrow. Because he is destitute and hungry, the man prepares to kill the crane. But when she lifts her elegant head, silver feathers trembling, those golden eyes holding his, the young man cannot bear to deny the world such bright life.

Tenderly, he lifts the crane and carries her to home. Pulling out the arrow, he heals her wounds with herbs and salve. He attends to her with the devoted kindness that is the best of any species. Soon her wings quiver in anticipation of flight. Wind currents and other birds call her to come home to the sky, to lush and warm wetlands, to their nightly rookeries. Though this crane is the most beautiful being the man has ever encountered, he intuits that she is not his possession, or even his companion. She must be restored to her own wild and radiant destiny. He opens the door, and the crane takes flight. Soaring over the woods, she soon joins the V-shaped curve of other cranes moving like loud constellations in the clouds.

The man is lost without her, remembering the gentle cooing as she cocked her head and listened to him tell the story of his limited life, the flap of her wings as she hopped about his house, the way she watched his every move—as if he mattered. He believes that nothing magical will ever again enrich his life.

But that night, he is surprised by a tap-tap-tapping on his door. There in the moonlight stands a stunning young woman, clad in silver and gray silk. 

“I am your wife,” she tells him simply, her voice flute-like and musical. He falls back, astounded, as the woman enters his home with authority and such graceful steps she might as well be dancing.

How can a woman so lovely lay claim to a sorry soul like me, the man marvels?

He is so shy he can only watch, awestruck, as the woman takes possession of his meager home. She swoops around, cleaning every cobweb, mending every broken window, setting everything right. The slender woman sleeps in his bed, while the man spends three nights in the ashes of his own fire.

“I cannot support you,” the man must admit as they both grow hungry, and he cannot find work. “You deserve a much richer man, someone to take good care of you.”

“It is I who will take care of you,” the woman smiles, her eyes like sunlight. “But you must not disturb me while I work in my little room.”

Of course, he agrees. His life is already so much more wondrous with her. In love for the first time in his young life, he waits outside her door, summoning the courage to whisper through the knothole, “Will you . . . could you . . . marry me?”

A chirp and little cry from inside her room is his answer.

 

Colby Winfield / Unsplash

 

When she finally emerges, she offers him a brocade of silver-gray silk so richly woven, he gasps. Any woman would want this to adorn themselves in splendor. But shouldn’t she keep it for their wedding day?

“No,” she assures him softly, “sell this at the market and we will want for nothing.”

Her silken tapestry, woven with black and gold threads, is so gorgeous that women flock to purchase even small pieces. No one in the village has ever seen such artistry. The man and his new wife grow rich, perhaps spend a little too much, and soon the wife must return to her solitary room and weave more brocade.

“Let me be,” she again warns her husband. “Do not disturb my work.” But, like most spouses, the man is too curious. He desires not just the woman, but her soul and her secrets. How does his wife weave such wonders, what is she hiding from him? He leans his head against the door, hears her spinning and whistling. Stealthily, he opens the door to discover—she is not human. Transformed, standing on one long leg, plucking her own plume of silver feathers, is that same magnificent crane he once saved from a hunter’s arrow. Now, to save them both, she is stripping herself of what she needs to survive. He had not noticed that after each creation of silk brocade, his wife grew weaker. Now, she was giving him her all. And he had broken her only request of him. For privacy, for a room of her own.

His remorse is great, but his loss is greater. She gives him one last, long, and intimate look: then her wings flutter, whoosh, lift. She flies above him, crying—the keen of grief, the caw of betrayal and lost love, the sigh of release.

 

***

 

THERE ARE several versions of this “Crane Wife” folktale. In Tsuru no Ongaseshi, or “Crane’s Return of a Favor,” when the man realizes that his wife is sacrificing herself for their love and survival, he begs her to stop plucking her feathers for them. But the crane wife says her gift of silken feathers is for love. “The man says that love exists without sacrifices, but he is wrong. He who lives without sacrifices for someone else doesn’t deserve to be with a crane.”

These contemplative and often endangered cranes have sacrificed much to share habitat with humans. Here in the Pacific Northwest, as well as worldwide, crucial wetlands are shrinking as we encroach more on their fragile littoral zones; their fishing is also depleted as oceans warm, and fresh and salt waters are polluted by agricultural runoff. In some countries, cranes are still hunted. There is also the neverending blink and blast of electricity, the ubiquitous din of our species’ relentless activity, artificial lights often dominating the night, disturbing great blue heron rookeries and nocturnal hunting birds like northern spotted owls. Natural dark is rare, and so is solitude—the only thing the Crane Wife asked of those who loved her.

But sensory pollution also diminishes people, like stripping off layers of sensitivity, poise, and presence. Many other species are going extinct in this loud, manic, crowded, and deeply distracted world. But what is going extinct in human nature may be our ability to be attentive to rhythms other than our own—the musical lilt and call of birds, the original songs that the wind makes breathing through each tree, the radical silence and hush of stargazing above timberline, the rapt focus of a heron fishing.

 

Bring home Wild Chorus to experience more memorable encounters with animals.

 

During the global pandemic, humans had to stay home, sometimes in solitary rooms, as wild animals reclaimed our deserted cities, towns, and waterways. Like the Crane Wife, we stayed inside, transforming ourselves to create the beautiful fabric of an inner life. With such heightened senses and solitude, how differently did we perceive our natural world? What in our natural world healed, when our own thoroughfares and neighborhoods were more populated with animals than people? Our shared ecosystems were more vibrant, more visible, when we were invisible. Wild animals have never really left us. They adapt and abide undercover, until our human quarantines allow animals to reveal their true selves, like in the old Japanese crane folktales, free to spin their silken gifts for us.

Like the Crane Wife, we have stripped ourselves of the very animal senses and protective skills we most need to thrive. For love, for ego, for riches, whatever drives us. We must ask, given such willful deprivation, such an extinction of attention: Do we deserve to take up so much space in the same watery world as cranes?

In his wonderful book An Immense World, Ed Yong writes about the “radical empathy,” which is our superpower. “Empathy toward other species and toward nature is the only way out of our current ecological predicament,” he says. This is not new. Folktales like “The Crane Wife,” mystics from Lao Tzu to Christ, Buddha, and the Dalai Lama, have taught compassion as a spiritual path—and a survival skill. What’s new in the twenty-first century is that mainstream science is finally embracing such spiritual traditions.

 

***

 

THE FIRST STORIES that we tell our children teach empathy and close attention to other animals. “The deepest layers of our psyche still have animal characters,” notes psychologist Ladson Hinton in his essay “A Return of the Animal Soul.” Children naturally commune with animals. They include animals in their bedtime prayers; they easily shapeshift to imagine becoming animals; and they have imaginary friends who are animals. Eighty percent of kids’ dreams are about animals. That bond has fallen to 10 percent by adulthood when one’s life is burdened by busyness and distraction. Imagination and empathy are often sacrificed to greed and the grind of getting ahead. The crane husband lost the great love of his life when the mystical animal bond was broken.

As I watched the man doing Tai chi on my beach in communion with the great blue heron, I recognized the swirling circle of his arms, like wings, as the “silk unreeling” of my own decades of Tai chi practice, a reminder of the silk weaving of the Crane Wife tales. I wondered what the great blue heron made of this man’s subtle dance, what the Dalai Lama calls “spiritual mindfulness.” Did she feel connected to the man in some cross-species recognition of the dance, the stillness? Certainly, she allowed his presence and perhaps shared his reverence.

Most wild animals flee or hide when humans are near, when we come crashing through underbrush or racing motorboats across waves. Why did the heron accept such intimacy, such abiding closeness? Man and bird stood only ten feet apart, but they were not separated in their seamless quality of attention and meditative presence. The heron’s bill was not pointed down to instantly pounce on a fish in the shallow surf; she was standing on one leg, her eyes fixed on the distant horizon. As if sensing the bird’s reverie, the man also ceased his dance, his palms resting on his belly. Both human and bird stood in absolute calm, gazing out across a sea so glassy and sunlit, a shining path that shimmered from shore to horizon.

 

Jeremy Hynes / Unsplash

 

Our species rarely cultivates such calm—the kind of animal stillness and scrutiny that is the opposite of fight-or-flight stimulus. And yet, in such meditative moments, we often see the world most clearly. The clear seeing of man and heron. Contemplation and the inner life are antidotes to fear and mindless distraction. As the Taoist writer, Huanchu Daoren writes, “Best be very calm yet radiantly alert.” To answer the Crane Wife folktale, this reverent and compassionate man, who included another animal in his own spiritual practice, certainly deserved to be with a crane. She had chosen him, to abide together, though just for a while, because great mystics also teach impermanence.

We may well be an impermanent species; our consumption and exploitation of nature and other animals foretells the unintended consequence of our own extinction. But perhaps the pandemic and our mandatory retreat gave us a far-sighted glimpse of how much nature and other species will recover from our overstep, our breaking of all our treaties with the earth. The contemplative Time Out we endured might also help us imagine another future than extinction for ourselves and other animals. The man and the heron dancing together on the beach will always be for me an image of a healed, restored world. That is what we must imagine, a future in which the Crane Wife doesn’t leave—because we help heal her and honor her needs, what Ursula Le Guin calls her “serene, inexhaustible fullness of being.” Only then can we stay and survive together. Cranes, after all, mate for life.

A foghorn moaned in the marine mists. With the slightest wisp and whisper of wings, the Great Blue lifted, her legs dangling one more moment in the surf. The man turned to give the great bird a deep, slow bow—a gesture at once grateful and glad. With a mighty flap, the heron lifted, circled above him, called out in that timeless caw, and then was gone. Into the great blue.


From Wild Chorus: Finding Harmony with Whales, Wolves, and Other Animals by Brenda Peterson. Mountaineers Books, 2024). Copyright © 2024 by Brenda Peterson. Reprinted with permission.

 

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Brenda Peterson is the author of over 23 books of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. Her novel Duck and Cover was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves was chosen as a “Best Conservation Book of the Year” by Forbes magazine. She also writes children’s books, including Wild Orca, Lobos, and Catastrophe by the Sea. Brenda’s work has appeared on NPR and in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Tikkun, Seattle Times, Orion, and Oprah magazine.