At this time of year, things can get a trifle manic, at least in this household. There are numerous ends to be tied off, tasks scraped from the plate of daily life. And, of course, there are fresh items on the to-do list in preparation for celebrating Christmas, which in my family is more to do with tradition than religion. With my head a-whirl, it takes conscious effort to snatch small moments of tranquillity. Patience is a virtue that’s noticeably lacking. The White-faced Heron can teach me much, when I pause to notice.
A current project-in-progress aims to raise awareness of the plight of the White-faced Heron, along with other birds that either live at or visit the Bimblebox Nature Refuge in Queensland, Australia. The refuge is under threat, and therefore so is the birds’ habitat. The threat comes in the form of long-wall and open-cut mining. China First, a mega coal-mining company, is eager to begin, and the Queensland government is keen to allow it. I fail to see the logic. But then, the logic of so many political and money-grubbing decisions evades me.
Jill Sampson, an amazing woman, has instigated a mammoth project of creativity and concern in the form of the Bimblebox Art Project. She sent out the call for writers, printmakers and musicians to represent the 153 bird species under threat. Along with other printmakers and writers, I heard that call and responded with enthusiasm. It is one way in which I can have a voice.
My bird was selected for me. It was an apt choice; the White-faced Heron is a favourite.
When I moved here, three years ago, the dam was full, a haven and magnet for all types of water birds. This year has seen little rain. The water level is just ankle-deep for wading visitors – spoonbills, cormorants, ibis and, my friends the White-faced Herons. As single nomads they come, occasionally in pairs. No great flocks, or even family tribes on fishing trips and mud-bath picnics. The joy of watching them is no less.
If patience is a virtue, the white-faced heron is virtuous indeed. At the beginning of summer, the frogs’ concert season has ended. With slim pickings, what is there for Heron to eat? An insect or two, mud-flavoured worms, or perhaps a young yabby missed during others’ foraging? No more casting around the rim of a great body of water, she can now venture into the centre of the soggy earthen bowl, searching for nature’s sacrifice. Each foot-fall considered, in slow-motion she high-steps, wending between clumps of grass. Her head gently swivels on long neck gracefully curved. Intent on her task, her golden eye spies a morsel. Head darts, neck rises. Blue-black bill dripping, there is a flash of pale russet belly. Gulp. It’s gone.
As if following paths in an invisible labyrinth, she continues on, pausing regularly to appear as an exquisite statue, some well-wrought idol of a water Goddess, blue-grey plumage agleam in the sunlight.
And, she dances. Soft-foot-shuffling, she stirs the mud, hunting, seeking sustenance.
Questions flow through my mind as I watch her perform a ritual as natural to her as breathing is to me. Does she have young ones waiting, on a raft of twigs floating in branches above the foxes’ tracks? If so, how many of her feathered children will survive the feral cats’ jaws, those same foxes that become bolder as their numbers increase? Is her mate waiting, patient too, for her return to the family home? Will they chat about the day’s gleanings, the receding hunting grounds, their hopes for the future?
I’m thinking like a human, like her, doing what comes naturally. But why is my thinking so different from that of others of my ilk, that of the conglomerates, the greed-mongers; the ones intent on unnatural acts of annihilation? Heron is supposedly protected by the edicts of men. Yes, right, of course. But aren’t rules made to be broken? Where will Heron and her kind find the essentials of life – safety, shelter, sustenance – needs no different from my own, if the water is drained and the Earth ripped asunder by the machinations of politics and machines steered by foreign shareholders?
I try to be a good pupil, learn the lessons she exhibits by example, but I have not yet achieved Heron’s level of patience. My canine pal is a faster learner than I. He has learned, quickly, from pup-hood that any wildlife entering his realm is sacred, a friend to be welcomed and watched, not harried or pounced upon. Like a benign pied piper, I wish for the skill of hastily gathering together the threatened, the voiceless, and take them under my wing, bring them all to my dam that will be replenished by natural laws.
Perhaps her hunger is sated, the pickings are slimmer that anticipated, or she yearns for fresher water, a change of fishing location. Heron spreads her wings.
Lift-off. As is her way, she flies patiently; wing beats long, slow sweeps.