29 January 2004

Barry Holstun Lopez on Winter Herons

One winter evening in New York he had had dinner with a classmate from Amherst, on 56th Street. When they emerged it was to find it had been snowing. They were dressed for it. They were full of food and wine and did not care to get away anywhere. They stood on the corner of 54th and Park and talked. The falling snow obliterated their footprints and left them standing in a field of white illuminated by a street lamp before the friend finally caught a cab uptown. He watched the cab until it was only red taillights. He did not want to hurry away. In the chilled air and falling snow was some universal forgiveness and he did not want to disturb it. He stepped slowly off the curb, headed south.

Overhead, above the surface of the pool of light cast by the street lamps, the canyon of the wide avenue disappeared into darkness. He had walked only a few blocks when he realized that birds were falling. Great blue herons were descending slowly against the braking of their wings, their ebony legs extended to test the depth of the snow which lay in a garden that divided the avenue. He stood transfixed as the birds settled. They folded their wings and began to mill in the gently falling snow and the pale light. They had landed as if on a prairie, and if they made any sound he did not hear. One pushed its long bill into the white ground. After a moment they were all still. They gazed at the front of a hotel, where someone had just gone through a revolving door. A cab slowed in front of him—he shook his head, no, no, and it went on. One or two of the birds flared their wings to lay off the snow and a flapping suddenly erupted among them and they were in the air again. Fifteen or twenty, flying past with heavy, hushing beats, north up the avenue for two or three blocks before they broke through the plane of light and disappeared.

(Barry Holstun Lopez, "Winter Herons," in his Winter Count [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981], 15-25, at 23-4)