Connecting to nature, whether grand and glorious in scale or minute and intimate gives context and texture to our humanity. I share here some observations as they pass through my daily meditations walking in the natural world. I see mostly the suburban wilding gardens in my home town of Forest Hills PA. But this year I will travel to Texas, Hawaii and Alaska to give speeches and to visit family and friends. The beauty of the Earth in its many manifestations can inspire, heal and challenge us.
Drama in the Pond
January 12, 2023
I looked out my bathroom window at about 7:00 AM just to see what kind of a day it was outside. As I glanced over the yard, I noticed a gray hulking shape beside the pond. I watched as it straightened up to a height of about four feet and began to stalk around the edge of the little pond. It was a blue heron, its slate feathers and slim silhouette well camouflaged among the bare bushes. The temperature has been unusually warm for January, and the usual ice cover is not present over the pond. The recent pruning of the oak canopy has exposed the surface of the pond to the sky, and the red goldfish must be visible from a great height.
So I watched now from the sun room as the heron stalked around the pond, testing various approaches, including standing on the rocks where the water tumbles to recirculate in the summer. It took a fluttering leap from one side to the other, landing in the water on the edge, and after a great splashing, emerged with a fish clasped in its great beak. It hopped out of the pond and up to the wooded level of garden above the pond and took several gulps to orient the poor fish head first into its mouth, and swallow. I could see the tail thrashing as the fish disappeared in three gulps and then bulge down the heron’s throat.
He stood still for a few minutes then stalked over to the clear space in the hedge and took off into the gray sky from the open sidewalk on the edge of the road. I immediately went out to see what was left, and of course the pond was all cloudy with the silt stirred up from the heron’s hunting.
Later in the day, I went out and saw that there were many fewer fish in the pond than the 23 that were present at the end of the summer. I stood there feeling sad, and a bit angry. Usually the pond would be protected by an ice cover, but if it were cold enough to freeze for weeks on end, as is usual for winter, the heron would be gone to warmer climes to the south. It must feel fortunate to have discovered a “sushi bar” in the middle of my yard, one hill away from the Monongahela River, where the fishing is less certain. I have seen the heron in my pond again this morning, and I dare not look to see how many fish are gone. It is surely going to eat all of them before spring!
Maybe this is the year I should drain the pond, rescuing what creatures remain, fix the cracks in the cement and remove the rusted remains of a former fountain. This can be the year I make the repairs and improve the recirculating system that Tom and I talked about for the last two years while he was sick. I am so glad he did not see this drama. He would have been very distressed to see his pond invaded by a wild predator. We had a hard freeze and a small deposit of snow, so the pond has frozen, and perhaps the heron will fly further South to find shelter and food.
As I sit here writing, a bright red cardinal has perched on the edge of the roof expertly splitting the seeds from the maple that are caught on the edge of the gutter guard. He flies to the holly bush and perches on the top to call his cheery song into the neighborhood. Last summer, there were three successful cardinal nests in the privet hedge that divides my property from my neighbor’s driveway. I hope they continue to make their home here. I marvel how the little creatures survive and thrive in the most amazing way. All around me, little dramas of life take place. It is the nature of herons to eat fish just as it is the nature of cardinals to eat seeds. And the fish in a more natural habitat would have protection of winter ice and summer water plants. Here in this artificial pond, the deer have eaten the water plants this summer, and the warmed climate has prevented the ice cover. Goldfish are not common in Pennsylvania ponds, rivers, and streams! So, I should take comfort that the wild creatures have some source of sustenance, as I plan for next year a less vulnerable way to manage the water on my hillside property that I am fortunate to share with a diversity of wild animals and plants.
The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest North American heron, often seen standing silently along inland rivers or lakeshores, or flying high overhead, with slow wingbeats, its head hunched back onto its shoulders. Highly adaptable, it thrives around all kinds of waters from subtropical mangrove swamps to desert rivers to the coastline of southern Alaska. With its variable diet it is able to spend the winter farther north than most herons, even in areas where most waters freeze. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/great-blue-heron