The Great Blue Herons, Jun 05 | Lyrical Essay Wanders into the Silence of the Great Blue Herons

Steve Semken and Wendell (photo by Mark Paul Petrick)

Birds have always been considered flashes of insight.
—Steve Semken,
The Great Blues

Late in the summer of 1992, walking along the edge of LittleSpirit Lake, I encountered my first standing, fishing heron. I stood stockstill when I spied it beyond a row of water weeds, and the heron stayed inplace, ignoring me for several minutes, then lifted off, flapped a few flaps,and settled further down the shore. I was amazed at the sight of the wing span,the trailing legs, the graceful composure of a heron seen at a distance ofless than ten feet. Since that first close encounter, I have observed heronsfishing and flying near campgrounds in the Yellow River State Forest in northeastIowa and off season on The Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. The moreherons I have seen, the more herons I see. The shape of the marvelous birdis now properly installed in the compendium of my expectations.

Before 1992, herons were a literary connection for me. The first poet’sbook I ever chose for myself was Birthdays from the Ocean, a slim collectionof 31 poems written by Isabella Gardner. I ordered her book after reading areview of it in the Saturday Review in 1956. The masthead poem recounts herpursuit of a great blue heron throughout an afternoon ride.

He never flew far from me
we kept meeting past each cape and estuary
but he always heaved doggedly out of touch. I
only wanted to stare myself into him to try
and thou him till we recognized and became each
other. We were both fishing. But I could not reach
his eye.

I have read and reread Steve Semken’s newest book, TheGreat Blues,during this month. Within its 78 pages he unfolds an account of a verypersonal connection with great blue herons, not flying single spies, butnesting battalions within a rookery (or heronry) somewhere in northeasternKansas. I have come to the point of noticing and watching herons; Semkenhas been immersed in an established rookery through 14 years, pursuingcontact, absorbing the sounds and smells, noting the tactile aspects ofthe great “reptilian” birds gathered for breeding in the canopiesof giant sycamores. With him as readers, we walk on bleached dry heronbones and fresh heron guano, come to understand that in observing the GreatBlues we are also being observed. We experience the heronry, not as naturalists,casual bird watchers, or academics, but as part-time residents of its hiddenvalley over time. And we ponder with him.

As usual, Semken’s use of language sends me off on a happy chasethrough my trusty unabridged dictionary, tracking applications and originsof words. He writes in a conversational style, embedded with quotationsfrom an amazing range of sources: historians, biblical scholars, poets,philosophers ancient and modern, ecologists, theologians, hunters, localhermits, and heretics, even the Great Blues themselves—frahhhawwwk!The text moves from quotation to quotation, explorations of meaning wovenon a weft of collected commentary, always returning to the sensory experiencesof wandering among the sycamores, surrounded by the “clacking, squalling,barking” of the gregarious birds.

The author engages the possibilities of “the soul external,” soulsplaced beyond the body for safe keeping or to maintain connectionwith a particular location. A portion of my soul, I know, resides in aparticular outcropping of granite I pass when I leave my birth home inupper Michigan, external but rooted in place. The likelihood that greatblue herons may be prophets and angels provides additional speculationsof interest to many of us. Reading, events, chance conversations oftenconverge and complement;The Great Blues has done just that in my life, along with MatthewScully’sbook, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering ofAnimals and the Call to Mercy, and reading Genesis 1 aloud at theEaster Vigil. 

For the past few years Semken has assembled theologians, poets, writers,and visual artists for annual Harvest Lectures, begun through his workwith Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa. In addition tohis own books, Ice Cube Press has published a book for each of those occasions.The Great Blues has been illustrated by Andrew R. Driscoll and publishedby Woodley Memorial Press at Washburn University in Topeka, KS. A cunningprinting touch is the use of a font which features a tiny heron-like curvedletter “t” wherever it follows a “c”, as in action,connect, object. This slim volume devoted to heron-awareness is a pleasureto hold as well as read.

Excerpt from The Great Blues

“I feel like a child, or perhaps remember being a child, in thepresence of the Great Blue Herons and once again feel the thrill of specialoutdoor places where I used to cuddle up in the fall weather as a ten-year-old,on a compost heap, along a limestone wall out of winter wind, warmed bythe gentle sun. Or I would wander a path in the snow, following it to anopening in the woods to watch as the sun went down and the earth startedto glow a dark and deep, metal-ore-like color. I lived more in make believethan in reality, but certainly not less in truth than I do now. My worldwas entirely true and imagined at the same time. All the world was candy,greened with sunlight, spiced with the gentle coos of the mourning dove.Remembering this now, I find myself recollecting a poem of e.e. cummings:

“i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

For more information on The Great Blues, go to