The grey heron is back. I have been watching and waiting for him, and finally I’ve been rewarded. Last year he was a fixture on Dunsapie Loch, on the east side of Arthur’s Seat. There he would stalk, or wade, or stand frozen in position like some sort of prehistoric decoy. This year he favours the busier St. Margaret’s Loch by the main road running through Holyrood Park. This body of water is popular with young children and old ladies clutching plastic Hovis bags filled with torn-up stale bread that they feed to the pigeons. They are less interested in the heron than I would have imagined, but he is watchful and vigilant, pinning us with his Mona Lisa eye as he adopts a poised, regal stance.
Herons are resident year-round, so I don’t know where he has been before now. He seems to come and go, take off and reappear unexpectedly. It makes me think about the people who land into our lives, make an impact and then take flight, disappear without warning. And I think about how this coming and going is our source of greatest pleasure and pain. Who is going to appear? From where? When shall they land? How long will they be around? Don’t go! I think about significant individuals who appear to have fallen from the sky into my life and brought with them a whirlwind of change and energy and excitement. I might have thought they were here for good, settled with clipped wings, but in reality, we never know how long someone is staying and whether or not they are just passing through. It might not seem like it right now, as many of us have never been more static in our lives, but we are all in a constant state of taking flight and landing; if not geographically, then in our commitments and responsibilities. Some people stay put for the longest time, so much so we begin to think they are as fixed and permanent as an ancient standing stone. Others are in perpetual movement, afraid to commit – like my heron – to one particular body of water; they move themselves on. Others want to stay, but fate or life or circumstance has different plans and they are pushed, unfairly, before their time. And all this from watching the heron? Yes. I think about old friends who have landed into my inbox during the lockdown, and new friends too, stopping by, leaving an impression. How long before they all take flight?
The heron gets ready to fly. He seems to labour in takeoff, as inelegant as a Boeing 747 trundling down the runway. I almost doubt his ability to rise – which of course he does – into ungainly but powerful flight. Higher, farther, smaller; he is gradually disappearing, until I can see him no more. And into the sky with him rise those people I have known who don’t visit in person anymore. I trust he’ll be back, this bird that has become my symbol for cycles of arrival and departure. I walk on in the sure knowledge that old faces are never replaced but remembering that the arrival of new faces bring hope.
Heron, by Michael Longley
(In memory of Kenneth Koch)
You died the day I was driving to Carrigskeewaun
(A remote townland in County Mayo, I explain,
Meaning, so far as I know, The Rock of the Wall Fern)
And although it was the wettest Irish year I got the car
Across the river and through the tide with groceries
And laundry for my fortnight among the waterbirds.
If I’d known you were dying, Kenneth, I’d have packed
Into cardboard boxes all your plays and poems as well
And added to curlew and lapwing anxiety-calls
The lyric intensity of your New York Jewish laughter.
You would have loved the sandy drive over the duach
(“The what?”), over the machair (“the what?”), the drive
Through the white gateposts and the galvanised gate
Tied with red string, the starlings’ sleeping quarters,
The drive towards turf-fired hilarity and disbelief,
“Where are all those otters, Longley, and all those hares?
I see only sparrows here and house sparrows at that!”
You are so tall and skinny I shall conscript a heron
To watch over you on hang-glider wings, old soldier,
An ashy heron, ardea cinerea, I remind you
(A pedant neither smallminded nor halfhearted):
“And cinerarius?”: a slave who heats the iron tongs
In hot ashes for the hair-dresser, a hair-curler
Who will look after every hair on your curly head.
That afternoon was your night-season. I didn’t know.
I didn’t know that you were “poured out like water
And all your bones were out of joint”. I didn’t know.
Tuck your head in like a heron and trail behind you
Your long legs, take to the air above a townland
That encloses Carrigskeewaun and Central Park.