A game since April, my presence, while irrigating, interrupts the daily routine of wading the edges of the pond for this Great Egret and Great Blue Heron. Usually one or the other, they generally fly when I get within a 100 yards of them to light a safe distance away on dry ground to watch and wait until I’m done. Sunday morning as the pipeline filled, they both circled to a secluded spot in the cattails instead, just barely within range of my camera lens.
Not quite a siege of herons.
Outside, early summer heat stifles
the mind, bakes a hard crust
upon the brain beneath straw lids—
eyes roll and detach within flashes
of white light, falling towards delirium:
I cannot breathe or see connections,
I cannot think, I cannot write.
Small comfort that I am not alone
within this fuzzy circumstance.
Harassed by a squadron kingbirds,
a Great Blue glides and lights
upon the gravel, stands tall
to claim any open space,
grounded for battle. All supposed
sentiments have escaped to shade,
gone north to cooler climes.
Summer in the San Joaquin,
a damn hard time to write.
After rain in spring, I see my father
standing among a half-dozen others
atop fresh mounds of dirt, hear him
praise the Great Blue Heron as the best
‘gopher-getter around’. As the creek
warms, he glides up canyon early,
spends his days wading shallows,
coasting home in the gloaming.
Punctual, you could set your watch
by his circles to work each day,
depending on season and crop.
When it all mattered too much,
he’d slip up the road to check
the feed and fences, the condition
of my cows grazing with his herons.
During the past decade, the Great Blue Herons have become less tolerant of our presence, it seems, quicker to fly as we go about our normal routines of feeding and gathering cattle, or irrigating. In the 1950s, their rookery was in a stand of sycamores along Dry Creek, located a mile south of where we now live. It was not uncommon to ride beneath their rookery and not have them fly. The closest residence was three miles away.
Sometime in the 70s, they moved downstream two miles to another stand of sycamores along the creek between our irrigated pastures and closer to the recently abandoned gravel pits below Terminus Dam and Lake Kaweah. At that time, the Great Egrets began to appear on the ranch, but maintained their rookery elsewhere.
The Great Blues moved again in the mid-2000s to somewhere within the abandoned gravel pit area, about 100 acres of thick riparian at the confluence of Dry Creek and the Kaweah River, a ‘no-man’s land’ and home to deer and feral pigs, diverse raptors including Osprey, among other things.
I have encountered the heron above two or three times a week along the shore of our irrigation pond since spring. The comfortable space between us has decreased to about 100 yards now, down from 400 when our irrigating began. Whether thinking it was hidden in the cattails or getting used to me, this photograph with my Olympus point & shoot was closer longer.
The past two dry years have been tough on the Great Blue Herons here, resorting to year-round rodent hunting to sustain themselves. With a measureable flow for only 18 days this year, absorbed before it made it to the Kaweah River, Dry Creek peaked at 9 cfs on April 3rd, compared to the 2010-11 season when Dry Creek ran until September 4, 2011. It’s too late for the chance of showers (and thunderstorms) today and tonight to help our feed or the herons much other than settle the dust and temporarily change the smell of things with only 5.67” of rain since October 2013. Those are the numbers, but one look at our April feed conditions says it all.
An image branded in my brain during the devastating Drought of 1977 is that of a Great Blue Heron fishing from the concrete bank of the Friant-Kern Canal near Exeter that gave me hope, that demonstrated their adaptability to me. No wonder they have become our totems—now if we can just take their lead.
Down from the City (SF), my son and I take coffee outside early Easter morning. First light is blinding as it breaks over the Sierra foothills to highlight this Blue Heron’s back as he poses and seems to be grawking, “Top of the morning” to us.
“If you keep the faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down into the mud where the truth is.”
– William Stafford (“Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron”)
In a dark corner of my cerebrum,
hangs a painting framed like a window
to a bright summer’s day, a Blue Heron
fishing from the steep concrete bank
of the Friant-Kern Canal, legs braced
at the edge of snowmelt snaking
through foothill orchards south –
faded black stenciled letters saying:
STAY ALIVE BY STAYING OUT.
Far from the noisy rookery in the tops
of sycamores above the bogs and frogs,
a tourist, an opportunist, this old will
adapts to all kinds of weather to outlive
our politics, our genius and mistakes –
as good a place as any to hang hope.