Do Herons Watch Sunsets?

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One evening T and I drove out to Abbott’s Lagoon just before sunset, both feeling a bit anxious and melancholy for no specific reason; perhaps missing the kids and longing for connection in our new community. Soft waning light set the purple needlegrass aglow, the sigh inducing magic hour just before twilight. River otters had been spotted in the lagoon and a few photographers trained their colossal lenses on a pair of ducks nonchalantly paddling in the placid water. A famished otter will sometimes grab ahold of webbed feet and make a meal out of a floating bird; the photographers waited patiently in hopes of capturing the moment. The lighting was perfect, after all.

Winding our way through the dunes, we continued to the miraculously deserted beach. Sandpipers danced with the waves and pelicans plunged with abandon. Leaning against a smooth chunk of driftwood, we gazed at the wild waves, stern cliffs, and miles of undisturbed sand. We spoke of aging and loss; paths not taken, but mostly we were silent. Who can explain the human longing for beauty and the truths we conjure from sea salted air and wind whipped hair? The solace found on a raw, lonely coast; scattered with washed up wood that resembles bones and strewn with stringy webs of rotting kelp. The universe offers an antidote to distraction; it’s immersion with the elemental.

Back at the lagoon, the photographers had abandoned their lookout. A great blue heron stood like a zen master in the shallows, still spindly legs vulnerable to hungry otters. Slowly, and for no apparent reason, the heron broke from its trance-like state and delicately picked its way out of the brackish water and onto the bank, then ever so slowly crested the dunes separating ocean from lagoon. There on the summit, the heron paused. It stood at the top of the dune, frozen, feathers tousled by wind, facing west until the sun melted away, as if this was the purpose of its effort. To any human observer it sure seemed so.

By this time, melancholy was displaced by wonder, the joyful ache of being overwhelmed and awestruck by life’s mysteries, and a deeply felt gratefulness for the privilege to witness them.

As we retraced our path through the iridescent grasses, a fluffy ebony and ivory orb of fur slowed our retreat. A mama skunk with four tottering babies led a procession down the trail, moving as one plush ball, stopping here and there to root around for a juicy grub or perhaps a lizard, and then rolling on, T and I following at a respectful distance. Honestly, the most delightful traffic jam I’ve ever experienced. Once our presence was noticed, mama skunk ushered her babies into the brush and we passed by without incident. As I glanced behind the family scuttled out to resume their evening foraging. Another successful lesson passed on from one generation to the next.

Nearly back to the trailhead, I gazed across the darkening landscape; a coyote loped through the grass, pausing to note our progress now and then. Mary Oliver wrote, “the universe does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them.” No doubt scientists can explain why that magnificent bird deftly climbed to the top of the dune to face the setting sun, but I don’t need to know the reason. Perhaps it was just an enchanting coincidence. I am sure it wasn’t for my sake or my improvement, but I was improved by it nonetheless. Nature is the finest remedy for restlessness, angst and despair, a reminder of greater things at work; each moment a gift to be savored like the sun’s last rays. To embrace my part in this epic adventure is to pause, take notice and be grateful. And to remember the time I saw a heron watch the sunset.

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