Monthly Archives: April 2021

The Lonely Heron

The lonely heron (or egret) stood at the edge of the water, long spindly legs supporting his perfectly white feathered body, his ess curved neck turning occasionally with calm deliberation. His long sharp beak must have ignited fear in every little mud scrambler or water creature, although they didn’t have to fear for long. He was so quick at snatching a morsel of dinner you would hardly notice.

There were a few ducks nearby, such different fowl from the heron. They swam and feasted, sometimes simultaneously, moving effortlessly from one area to another. The ducks were playful, pestering each other, diving head first into the cloudy water and coming up a distance away. The tall heron was silent and stood for long minutes as still as one of the sweetgum trees or oaks nearby, only his alert eyes seeming to move at all.

On the other side of a wide boardwalk, gliding towards the deep water, were black and gray Canada geese. Perhaps less playful than the ducks, they still were noisy and opinionated, asserting their claim to the lake. They were sociable, communicating with each other. Three more geese flew in from the other side of the lake, slicing smoothly into the water’s surface and instantly becoming part of the party.

Still, the heron kept watch, only moving a few feet occasionally along the edge of the water, sometimes in the water, yellow legs making squiggly reflections, sometimes on the shore. He seemed preoccupied as if he were studying to make a long speech. Then, like a snake striking, he would bend his long neck and spear a fish or frog pulling them neatly out of the lake, barely disturbing the surface.

There were several kinds of ducks, some dark brown, some almost golden, some male Mallards with unbelievably colorful markings–glistening green heads, a brown bib, as well as black and gray feathers along their backs. The mama Mallards are just as pretty in a much more subtle way. There weren’t many white ducks but two or three pair. They swam and foraged for water weeds and rested together not mixing with other ducks, or with the geese, or trying to converse with the silent heron.

Why was that heron all alone? Every time we went to Lake Cherokee (about once a week during the long Covid year) we could depend on seeing him there in the same location, all alone, no other heron to keep him company. I use the male pronoun, though I have no idea what sex the heron is. Maybe it was a she all alone with no one to tell her whether or not her feathers were smooth or to tell her troubles to. Whichever sex, why were there no other herons? When we had Covid we were absent from the lake for several weeks. When we went back, there was that heron, the only one of his kind, still fishing the same corner of the lake.

With my penchant for romance, I rushed to assume that herons mate for life, that the mate of this one had died, and that this lonely widow or widower stalked the shores or took flight across the tiny inlet, day by day, year by year, sad and grief stricken.

Then I decided to learn more about this lovely, sad, amazing bird.

I haven’t by any means done an exhaustive study but here are a few facts I have gleaned.

The great heron, great egret, snowy egret, and blue heron all have a wingspan of 4.3 to 5.6 feet and stand three to four feet tall. It is very hard for an amateur to distinguish between some of these herons and egrets so I’m not sure my lonely bird is a great heron or a great egret but I know it is great! Some have long thick yellow beaks and yellow legs, some have dark beaks and legs. Some grow beautiful plumes during mating season. The majestic great blue heron is colorful, but most of the egrets and herons are white, some snowier than others.

During mating season herons pair off though there’s no proof they mate for life. The male builds the nest in the top of a very sturdy tree, usually near water. Sometimes he lets his mate help him finish the job. Maybe she does the decorating! The nest is about four feet wide and a foot deep, quite a structure. And they reportedly do not use their nest again. What a waste! Heron eggs are about as big around as a chicken egg but longer. Egret eggs are a bit smaller.

Only a few of the young ones survive, not so much because of predators like hawks or foxes, but because the herons and egrets are very bad at siblicide. Yes, they are very agressive chicks, and very jealous too, and they eat each other.

Those plumes that herons grow during mating season? They are stunningly beautiful, I guess. My heron (or egret) only has a few dark plumes at the back of his neck. But the showy ones grow on the bird’s back. These plumes became cause for near distinction of the bird in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ladies loved to have those plumes in their hats and would pay a good price for them. But, happily for the herons, by 1910 it became illegal to hunt them. The Audubon Society was founded to protect birds from feather hunters.

Herons and egrets do migrate, always in flocks, but in the southeast U.S. they stay year round.

Almost everything I’ve read indicates that the heron belongs to a very sociable species, one whose members nest often in colonies, who fly together to migrate, and who, though silent unless very disturbed, seem to communicate with each other.

So why is this Cherokee Lake heron/egret always alone? I observed him week by week for months and always he was a loner. Yesterday Charles and I had the opportunity to drive over to Cherokee Lake, the first time in several weeks. I eagerly looked along the edges of the little inlet but he wasn’t there. We studied the shores for the tall white graceful bird but there was no sign of him. Geese and ducks were everywhere but no heron.

Was he in grieving and finally found another mate? Was he ostracized but finally welcomed back? Had he gotten lost somehow?

One thing is clear: he was a beautiful creation. He will never know how much pleasure he gave people just by being there in his little corner of the world, doing what he knew how to do, fishing and being beautiful. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s doing the same–except maybe now he has a mate, maybe a friend or two.

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Lost in the Wilderness

I had never before experienced such a dense forest. At midafternoon it was dark with only rare glimpses of sunshine glinting on the ferny forest floor. There was no trail. We (I had about five children in my care for this hike) were not far from the Willis’s house. But which way was it? The great firs and spruces I’d been so excited to see now seemed like towering monsters, every one of them looking so similar to others they weren’t good landmarks. The children were still in picnic spirits. They had no idea we were lost. I wanted to keep it that way.

Living for two weeks at the foot of snow-capped Mt. Rainier in 1964 was an experience never to be forgotten. Even now I can feel the ever cool, moist air, smell the lush ferns and other foliage, and hear the sound of children’s laughter. And I can so well picture that awe-inspiring mountain, iced with snow even in June. As a summer student missionary in Washington state under the then Baptist Home Mission Board, I was moved from assignment to assignment every two weeks. The two weeks in Packwood was a watermark time in maturing (a little bit!) this naiive girl who thought she had things under control.

Usually assigned to a church or mission, in Packwood I was assigned to help one woman put on a Vacation Bible School in a small church building no longer occupied by a church. I was told the church had disbanded because of an argument over whether or not to purchase a new pulpit, or something minor like that.

Nova Willis, a new Christian herself, felt compassion on the children growing up with no Bible teaching and responded to a Southern Baptist offer of summer help. I arrived on a Sunday evening to learn that she needed me to start the next day directing the school of all ages children, teaching the youth, leading the music, and whatever else was needed. She would teach the younger children and provide cookies and Koolade.

Quickly I learned that Nova’s husband, a nonbeliever, was only grudgingly tolerant of her zeal for teaching the children. My bed was a couch in their small living room. If I didn’t turn the light out by 9:00 I could hear Mr. Willis on the other side of a thin wall complaining to Nova about that he couldn’t sleep with a light on and what did I think I was doing up so late. He was a logger and left the house at 4:00 every morning.

In addition to Nova and her husband a lively occupant of the house was their four-year-old daughter who loved to play with me as long as she was awake. I was glad I hadn’t taken her with us on this hike. No one was under eight years old and could walk on their own quite well. But, apparently, none of these children, though they lived nearby, knew the forest very well. My subtle attempts to get a sense of direction from them proved totally ineffective.

I directed the children to sit down amongst the tall sweet smelling ferns. We’d learn a Bible verse, sing a song, and just talk about things they liked to do. And maybe I would figure out which way was home!

Two or three of the children told me their fathers “broke brush” for a living. I had already become familiar with this term that meant picking ferns like these to ship to florists all over the nation. I learned other things as well. It turned out that the troublemaker boy who was prone to pick on whomever sat near him and had a filthy mouth lived with his grandma and hadn’t seen his parents in months. A quiet little girl confided in a whisper that she was planning to write a book.

Even the little bit of sunlight that had filtered down on us now disappeared. Was a storm coming or was it getting that late? Lord, please help me get these children safely home.

I had actually written my mother soon after my arrival in Packwood that I thought it would be fascinating to be lost in the beautiful forest. She, knowing I didn’t always exercise good judgement, wrote me by return mail: DO NOT GET LOST IN THE FOREST!

Now, here I was and the description of “fascinating” did not exactly fit my plight.

We all stood up and I led the way seeking light, seeking the edge of this vast thick woods, breathing another prayer as I walked. To keep our spirits light, I started singing “I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track…” and then, abruptly, I held up a hand for everyone to get very quiet. Ahead of us I saw a deer walking very purposefully. That was not just any deer. I had seen it evening after evening come to the Willis’s little barn to eat sweet feed with their cow. My heart thumped. We’d follow that deer and hope he was going to the Willis’s now.

I’ve never been any more thankful to the Lord than when we stepped into the light, the clearing, with the Willis house in plain sight.

There were many other experiences that two weeks to remember the rest of my life. But being lost in the wilderness taught me to understand better the pressing sense of lostness which an unbeliever experiences. Having made a commitment to Jesus when I was six years old, I had no concept of what it would be like to grow up without Him in my life. It would be worse by far than simply to be lost in the forest.

A happy ending to my two weeks in Packwood was that three little girls came to know Jesus. I pray for them even today as I do for Nova Willis and her husband. I remember his incredible kindness as he insisted I call home. He couldn’t imagine why I had gone so far away on what he considered a whimsical idea. That three-minute long-distance call to Georgia took a bite out of their budget, I know, but I was very grateful to hear my mother’s voice. I did not tell her I’d gotten lost in the forest.

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The Light Lives

This is an Easter poem I wrote as a student at Young Harris College about 1962. Sunsets and sunrises in the mountains were always breathtaking as were the season changes. One of my fondest memories is that of half our student body climbing Brasstown Bald to have a special vespers service at sunset one day. But sunsets and sunrises, wherever we enjoy them, are a testimony to the eternal hope God freely gives.

The sun is setting red flames in the sky;

A minute more they will fade, then die.

Clouds blackwinging scatter the glow;

Separate embers light a river’s dark flow.

Wind rises fatefully stirring the trees

Like dry-boned skeletons hung in the breeze.

Mountains are clad in quiet mourning;

A night owl screeches as if in scorning.

Time shows in the east a soft red lining.

See its splendour climbing, shining!

The sky is filled with glad new light

Like the old that died last night.

As dawn after dark, hope survives pain,

For a time buried, then rising again.

Bird songs explode from forest to bay,

And I must sing, too, this Easter Day.

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