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  • Writer's picturejaneboutwell

Lessons Learned From the Heron (And Other Graceful & Awkward Wading Birds)

I love herons. There is something incredibly compelling about them. As I ask myself what it is that has me captivated, there are layers of answers. The curiously undulating “S” curve of its neck and the sheer force of presence in its size are at the surface but as I dig deeper I realize that the magnetism for me is in the contrasts. Certainly there is a grace and beauty about this bird, but if that was the complete description I think it would be more likely that I would check the box “understood” and move on. But the tension of the contrasts keeps me intrigued. The delicate, yet striking tassel feather on his head and chest. The agility and prowess, stalking with the grace and precision of an athlete through the water hunting his meal differs so greatly from the clumsy moment of lifting off into flight. He moves through that struggle and after great flapping, he glides - huge, unmoving across the sky. The great dignity of his motionless flight is contrasted with the curious sight of his gangly, long legs and large feet, like an afterthought dragging along behind.

Likewise, the Roseate Spoonbill is a study in contrasts. Unlike the lone dignity of the heron, the spoonbill is a companionable flock bird, rarely spotted alone, grazing steadily through the waterways as a cow does through the field. The spoonbill’s ladle of a bill senses the minute movements of prey as it sweeps back and forth through the water. He seems so incredibly unpretentious, unassuming, and unaware of his dazzling beauty. The swooshing flurry of pinks and reds, startlingly more intense on the underside of the wing, is reminiscent of a corp of ballerinas in flamboyant dance.

The realization that it was the contrasts that drew me in, the tension of seeming opposites that held me captivated, brought me to wonder what this speaks to in my life. Is there a bigger message?

The difference between the birds reminds me of the contrast of experiences we have had during the time of pandemic “sheltering in place”. Some have lived the experience of striking solitude like the heron or while others of us have had constant flock living like the spoonbill (those of us with large families sharing one roof).

The lesson of the contrasts also speaks to me as I personally learn about and experience neurodiversity. It is the reality that we have areas of great skill where we can move with grace and efficiency, while also having areas where we are like fish out of water - or herons flapping awkwardly into flight. Watching the heron, I feel invited into less self-judgment for my awkwardness. I see that the compelling honesty of the gangly parts brings greater beauty to the smooth, soaring parts.

Then, as I look outward with awareness at the cultural division that is shaking our world, I wonder how things might change if we could each lean in with curiosity, knowing and accepting that we will do it awkwardly. Instead of staying in the safety of our expertise, that area of strength where we feel the competency of the heron at hunt - can we, in compassion, choose to listen to the heart of the “other”? Instead of clinging to our personal frameworks that give us confidence, can we approach those of differing opinions with the unassuming humility of the spoonbill? The result may be a painfully beautiful surprise, like a flock of spoonbills taking flight.

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