Holy Dharma with Heron

Thanks to Linda Leinen over at Shoreacres, for providing the inspiration – via her wonderful piece on herons and poetry – for re-publishing this post. Enjoy!


I love herons. Their elegance: long, lean, streamlined curves over water, poised, waiting. Their focus: totally in the moment, poised, waiting….to strike sharp and swift. I love their languid flight: long wings lazily beating, slow concentrated strength and grace.

We live in Glasgow, Scotland UK city with the most green space. Our flat overlooks the river Kelvin which flows through the West End’s Botanic Gardens. On the riverbank, throughout the Gardens, all kinds of wildlife abound: amongst the over-fed pigeons and importunate grey squirrels the occasional kingfisher, an otter once seen on Boxing Day, sometimes a cormorant or two – and several herons taking up favourite positions along the river bank. The fish ladder by the weir is a choice spot of theirs. Another pitch is partly concealed by vegetation, right below the Humpbacked Bridge leading to steep steps rising to the upper, more cultivated part of the Botanic Gardens.

Most days, I take a well-travelled route down from our house – crossing the Humpbacked Bridge, up the steps, through the Botanics past the newly-refurbished Kibble Palace. This splendid circular, domed Victorian glass house hosts fine sculptures, elegant glass panels, a well-stocked pond – with some very old fishy friends adept at dodging the coins and wishes raining down on them on a regular basis – and a wonderfully displayed selection of plants and flowers from many parts of the world. It is a local jewel.

Grey Heron
Grey Heron

Strolling around those familiar, well-loved landmarks, I always enjoy occasional sightings of the heron. We can never decide how many herons there are of the same age and appearance. Maybe we are seeing the same one, over and over? Conversations like this weave together a very disparate, loose group of park regulars of all ages with a variety of views and opinions about the Botanic Gardens’ wild creatures. But the heron is a favourite; we always report sightings to one another.

We are inured to plentiful rain and bad weather as the default position for our local climate; stepping out into a pleasant, crisp, sunny morning  is therefore an immediate delight, especially with the Botanics in full autumn colours, carpets of leaves everywhere – if you get out early enough, before the park attendants with their noisy leaf-blowing machines get going!

Whilst appreciating this beautiful autumnal morning, my head was also full of the usual thought traffic as I contemplated the day ahead. The Buddhists speak the truth: we are only ever partly here. In each waking moment of our short, precious lives, we are usually distracted by something or other from being fully present. Thus we rarely savour fully the Holy Dharma of this very moment which will never come again.

Suddenly, my attention was totally focused on a sight I had never seen before. The heron was perched in full view, half way along the left-hand side of the Humpbacked Bridge!

I  stopped dead. Most unusually at half past nine on a weekday morning, there was no-one in sight.  “Should I stay watching right here, or try to creep closer?” I wondered, full of excitement and apprehension. Deciding on the latter option, I tiptoed very very slowly onto the eight-foot wide bridge, veering to the right in order to edge along the opposite side of the bridge to the heron.

The wild creature seemed absorbed in his own surveillance operation, long elegant neck moving slowly from side to side, eyes glinting in the morning light reflected off the quietly flowing river. Whether he had spotted me or not, he was paying me no attention. Barely able to believe my luck, I inched along  extremely quietly until – to my great amazement – I was level. We were only a bridge width apart. Never in my life before had I been so close to such a large wild bird.

The morning was still. The heron, briefly, was still. I was still. The Holy Dharma moved with the air currents across the bridge, the heron and me. All was One.

Japanese Heron Painting
Japanese Heron Painting

Hours might have passed. It was probably less than a minute. I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my left eye. A slender young man dressed all in black, carrying a rucksack, i-pods in his ears, was rapidly approaching the bridge. Stealthily, I crept forward a couple of feet, heading off the bridge toward the steps, still hugging the side opposite the heron. He still didn’t budge. For a fleeting moment I thought “Anne, that wild creature is tuned to you. He can feel your goodwill….” Then the rationalist dismissed such a thought. Still….

The young man was about to step through the gate onto the bridge. I held my finger to my lips, indicating silence; with my other hand palm up,  I signalled to stop, waving him over to my side of the bridge – hoping this unknown young man might share a rare experience. But he ignored me. As he marched past us the heron took off, winging his lazy languid way downriver. Waving goodbye, I stood for a moment – partly watching the heron, partly watching the young man’s back as he tramped up the stairs.

In that moment I truly felt the force of life’s duality: on the one hand, such gratitude and joy that the heron and I had shared a pure, holy moment of Oneness. On the other, deep sadness that the young man, shut in with his technology, had missed it. Carl Jung’s comment, which comes to me often, came to me then: “Our task in this life is to reconcile the opposites”…..

….and a ps to this story….a couple of weeks later, I was strolling home through the Botanics by the river Kelvin on my way home, having spent the afternoon at my office writing the first draft of this article which was in my bag.There on the riverbank, in  places where I had never seen them before, were – to my amazement and delight – two herons….

1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008/12
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

21 thoughts on “Holy Dharma with Heron

  1. hi annie, i enjoyed your last post as i have been a heron fan for a wee while noo (i see them when i cycle along the cannal bank).  at first glance i thought the title was holy dharma with heroin.  ye can immagine my supprise.  i thought for a wee second you had entered a new phase of your life.  personaly i am pleased it was the watery bird instead of the hard drug…..

  2. I liked your holy moment with the heron. It’s always gratifying to share space with animals, and even more so with those we think of as wild.
    I don’t have a pond nearby, but there’s a creek that flows down the hill just over the next yard. There’s a nice nature trail that follows along beside it for miles….. Haven’t seen a heron, but there have been deer.
    And I found a baby rattle snake in the road in front of my house…..
    Now there’s a wild animal I don’t much care to spend time with.
    Now I’m left wondering where the siblings are and the Momma and Dad.
    I hope I stay a good piece away from them.

      1. We have long winters here in the mountains of West Virginia, so I will have at least one thing to be grateful for when it’s cold. They will all go hole up for the winter and not bother anybody.

      2. LOL. Well, how about it provides the perfect excuse to stay indoors and read blog posts by people in other parts of the world. There’s is some seriously beautiful photography going on in some of them too.

    1. I am so, so pleased and honoured to be nominated! It sure cheers up a day where there have been around ten seconds without rain, and even my eyebrows are soggy! Many thanks, emaria.

  3. I’m so glad you republished this one. It was sheer joy to read it again. There are lessons aplenty out there in the natural world, for those who listen and look. I suspect the herons are learning a few lessons themselves. If we listened even harder, they might even share!

  4. Thanks for re-reading, Linda! I hope you saw the updated version where I thanked you for YOUR inspiration. That was why I re-posted. And I found it really funny that it took you in the States to let me know of the virtual web tour of the Kibble Palace – just down the road from me, here in Glasgow….

  5. Still remembering the morning we chatted at
    Costa across from Caledonian Mansions
    You had not made the transition yet
    Jan- June 2010-11
    Will try to send photos from our Blue Heron nesting from here in Petaluma California


  6. I didn’t realise until I read this that Glasgow was the UK city with the most green space. That is so inspiring because I grew up in the Gorbals and it wasn’t too green there. For some reason it really cheers me to hear that.

    I also love your heron. We have a few who live down on the bay near our house and I find them to be very serene and elegant creatures. There is definitely something magical about them. I don’t know if you are familiar with the writer Alice Hoffman but she often references the power of the heron in her work. Thanks for this wonderful post!

    1. Many thanks,Selma. I didn’t know that you grew up in the Gorbals – or when you left. But you certainly wouldn’t recognise the area now! There have been many changes in the city over recent decades – many for the better.

      The heron I see standing by a waterfall on the river daily, gazing immobile for fish which thus far I have never seen him catch, was looking especially cheerful yesterday, I thought. Perhaps all this attention has pleased him!

  7. Anne, it is very interresting of you watching TWO of the same kind afterwards. Came upon something told about seeing duppelgangers…..as the story told of everything in the nature of to have its duppelganger(even each of us). It is as to watch ourselves in a mirror, or the life as a mirror.
    You have certainly experienced one of those beautiful moments in time, and I have loved reading about it, thank you very much indeed.
    I have noticed of you to sitate Carl Jung from time to time.
    Carl Jung have also said of us to be so captivated by and entranced in our subjective consciousness that we have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through visions and dreams.
    Well, then we are back to the old Celtic and Nordic fairy-tales of everything will have its counterparts I`ll guess.

    1. Dear Inger Lise

      “……God speaks chiefly through visions and dreams….
      Well, then we are back to the old Celtic and Nordic fairy-tales….”

      Yes indeed! I like that. We live in a magical universe, despite the reductionists’ best attempts to tell us otherwise.

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