(guest writer Sierra Gladfelter)
This past May a Great Blue Heron dropped out of the sky and into our garden. We found it standing on slender stilts on a ridge of straw and manure my dad had hoed over the onions. I had a silver colander and pair of shears on my hip. I was about to open the garden gate to cut the asparagus when I saw the bird.? I stepped back, startled. Why had it not taken flight in fear? It did not move more than its saffron eye, which it bolted to my stare. It was incredible to be within twenty feet of such a fierce bird, a hunter, even if it only stalks minnows and crayfish. But it was disturbing too. This was not natural. I abandoned the asparagus and strode swiftly back to the house to tell my family. The four of us walked back out the driveway and stood in the fog, before the heron. Troubled, we let it linger and went about our business the rest of the morning, hoping nature would call it back to the river.
But the heron was still there by afternoon, and had moved little more than two feet. It looked tired and weeping. Like it had abandoned its fate to stand in our garden until it fell over in weakness. It was clearly sick.
My mom called the local wildlife rehab center and they told us to bring it in. To catch it, we had to dress in armor, to protect ourselves from its slender bill wielded like a dagger in self defense, targeting our eyeballs. Herons are merciless creatures when they are protecting themselves. They strike at the eyes to blind their enemies, or their saviors. Birds don’t judge. So my brother and I pulled on hoodies and tightened the strings around our faces, knotting them so we could only peer through a tiny hole. On our eyes, we wore safety an swimming goggles.
However the poor bird was so disoriented and crippled, my dad merely walked up to it as we came in from the sides and tipped a 5-gallon bucket over its stalky frame. It hardly resisted. My mom and I drove it to the wildlife center, with a board bunjeed to the top of the bucket. It scuttered across the wood and made pitiful scratching sounds the whole drive there.
When the wildlife rehabilitater opened the lid she swiftly grabbed it by the bill and curled its stick-like frame into her armpit. Apparently, despite its size the heron only weighed one pound. It is a hollow bird. She was convinced it had been poisoned, probably flew into a cloud of pesticides that was sprayed on the nearby Christmas tree farms. She gave it an antidote injection and figured she could revive it within a couple of weeks.
We shut the trunk, slipped her a twenty-dollar bill for the medicine. Everything they do here at the rehabilitation center is by donation. You can tell they don’t make any money. They live in an old trailer surrounded by cages. Peggy said she would call us in a week and let us know how the heron was doing. Driving away, we had to abandon its life to nature. We had done all that we could do.
That night I thought about the heron. Even adults find it hard to accept the possibility that animals, that people, will die despite our efforts to save them. As children we work even harder to save them. We hope even harder. We believe that we can make a difference if we try.
Whenever the cats killed a chipmunk or bird, when my brother and I were little we would bury it in “Forest Park.” Forest Park was a little patch of woods along the driveway where we cleared a narrow trail and dug a small one and a half-foot diameter “pond” into the forest loam. We lined it with a brown tarp. Every animal that died we dug a grave with the butt of a stick and wrapped the poor bedraggled creature in a silky green blanket of leaves. Then we would say a prayer and cover it with dirt. We stole bricks from my dad’s brick pile to use as headstones and scratched their names onto the bricks with a blunt stone. Finally we would wander through the orchard and llama pasture gathering a small fistful of limp flowers to lay on the fresh grave.
Sometimes the animals were not fully dead when my brother and I rescued them traumatized, hearts pounding from our cats’ jowls. Cupping them in our hands, tears streaming down our cheeks, one of us would cradle the bird or vole while the other locked the cats in the sunroom and got a cardboard box from the storage room. We would fill the box with cotton balls and leaves (the content of the box often depended on which species we were dealing with) and filled a bottle cap from the recycling bin along the back of the house with water. Out in the chicken shed we would steal a small handful of grain or corn and sprinkle it in the box.
Sometimes we did more extensive research into the animal’s diet. I remember climbing up on the desk to reach the bookshelves where we kept field guides to North American mammals. Crouching among stacks of papers I would leaf through the book and find a list of foodstuff the particular animal sustained itself on. It didn’t cross our minds or seem to matter to my brother and I that the animal was in its death throws and probably not concerned with matters of food. But we had hope and we would try everything we could. My brother and I would make up songs and sing to them. Even if the poor little mouse was visibly bleeding and not likely to last the night, we would wrap blankets around the cardboard box and rise early to check on them. Usually they were dead by morning, and we quietly got the shovel and headed reverently to Forest Park for the burial.
The graveyard became quite extensive over the years. Our cats had free reign of the great outdoors and they laid the crumpled bodies on the doormat as presents. Anytime one of us who opened the door and stepped out onto the mat in the sunroom and there was the soft crunch of a rodent beneath our feet, my brother or I would scurry for the shovel and we would head to Forest Park. This became our ritual.
Soon there were several dozen bricks forming a semicircle around the plastic-lined puddle in Forest Park. There were birds, chipmunks, voles, mice, frogs, moles, and baby bunnies. I remember running out of bricks in the later years, having to use rocks we dug out of the woods. My brother and I tended the graves as well. Periodically we would clear the falling leaves and forest debris out of respect for the animals, re-etch the names onto the bricks with a stone from the driveway, and pick fresh wild flowers. Crouching in the leaves, dirt under our nails singing to a graveyard of bricks and murdered mice.
My brother and I rescued tadpoles too, when the rains came and the pond behind the back porch flooded. The pond itself was only ten feet across, not much more than a puddle. We watched the frogs come in the spring, the first sign winter was ending. One would appear floating on the dark surface stained with tannic acid from the rotting leaves. Sometimes there was still floating in the pond when the frogs came. We would run and tell my mom and we would all stand at the edge of the pond and celebrate the arrival of spring.
Over the next week more and more frogs would appear, croaking hoarsely and filling the woods with song. My brother and I would creep onto the back porch, and sneak over to the railing, peering between the wooden bars to watch their masses- sometimes 50 or 60 frogs in this tiny puddle. Their song would cease the moment one of us would laugh and betray our presence. Then slowly they would take up song again and begin their copulating.
This was how my brother and I learned about how babies are made: watching frog sex. The female frogs were a buff tan, the color of buckskin. They were easy to see flailing and kicking limbs as six or eight male frogs attached themselves to her. Sometimes my brother and I wanted to save her, to net her out of the roiling mass of males. But my mom would gently stop us and tell us to put the net away. We needed to let the frogs alone when they were mating. I was often surprised she survived the affair.
But in a couple days we would find the mass of green jelly lulling in the sun-warmed shallows of the pond. This was another cause to celebrate as we cupped a clump of the shivering jelly, black specks like tiny pupils that would slowly develop and unfurl into tadpoles. The white jelly sheltering them from the cold, acted as a magnifying lens for my brother and I to watch their evolution. A tail would sprout and a tiny head would take form. Then one day the sheaths of jelly would split open and tiny flicking tadpoles would lay in the skin of water on top of the eggs. Outside of the egg was when life became dangerous and my brother and I took over their protection.
When the spring rains cameand the pond overflowed, the tadpoles went too. My brother and I would crouch in our underwear, armed with white plastic spoons. We worked as fast as we could scooping squirming tadpoles into plastic cups which we poured back into the pond. We had to build a dam to back the water, hoping the rocks would act as a screen to hold the tadpoles back.
I remember one rain where the tadpoles were washed all the way through the woods and down to the cars. People say that children have short attention spans, but my brother and I slaved for hours with plastic spoons saving tadpoles, until the sun went down. Squatting in the pouring rain, our shirts clung to our backs, our hair hanging in strings. We only gave up when we could no longer see the squirming black beads. I remember feeling devastated as we abandoned the rest to dry up and die.
A week later we get a call from the wildlife rehabilitator. It’s dead. As it turned out the amount of poison the bird ingested must have been much more than she thought, enough to be lethal. She said she stayed up all night with the bird as it shook and lurched, squawking and contracting its yellow claws until it died an excruciatingly painful death. Peggy said it was the worse case she had ever dealt with. She too was bawling all night as the heron died.
We all mourned the heron. It’s death felt like a tragedy. Maybe this was because we had invested time and energy into its life, into saving it. Whether it lived or died meant something to us. Perhaps others would have looked at the shaking heron standing in their garden and seeing that it was clearly on the brink of death, would have turned away and let nature take its course. After all it is a wild animal. Like tadpoles washed from flooding ponds, and predatory cats hunting prey, nature moves in cycles, holding populations in balance. Lives begin and end. Life and death is a savage but necessary circle.
One has to wonder how much we should affect these events in nature. Who are we to judge what creatures live and die? Cats have to eat. Only so many tadpoles can grow into frogs. But at the same time is it wrong to have empathy for a creature facing death? Even if it is inevitable that the tadpoles will only be washed out from the pond in the next storm, that the mangled mouse will die of internal bleeding in the night, doesn’t it mean something that at least we tried to save them? At least we did something.
Perhaps that’s why it meant so much to me to try to save the heron. I felt more of an obligation to save its life than other creatures because it wasn’t something that happens in nature. It wasn’t right that pesticides, applied by humans, had poisoned the heron. I felt responsible for the deeds of my species. I had to try to revive it, to save its life. But at the same time, when the phone call came with news of the heron’s death, I had to accept that there was only so much I could do.
I will admit that I do not run to the pond with plastic spoons when the rains come anymore. When I find a dead rodent on the stoop I no longer dig a grave and pick flowers. But I do usually whisper a prayer when I carry it to the edge of the yard and fling its body into the woods. I still care. Those days as a child saving tadpoles stayed with me and I think of them whenever it rains. (written when Sierra was 18)