A young woman stood on the 1941 bridge over Nancy Creek, shooting video with her phone of the water below.
I hurried to the bridge and looked down to see a blue heron standing motionless in the shallow water near the bank.
For years, the strange beautiful birds came to the area, inspiring the name of the nearby Blue Heron Nature Center. But the herons had vanished in recent years.
The young woman pointed out a small hawk perched on a branch hanging over the creek beside the heron. Neither bird moved. I tried to imagine what communion they shared.
I was on my way to the supermarket. When I returned to the creek, my bag loaded with items, the woman had left, but the blue heron remained in its same spot, as did the hawk. I watched for a few moments. The heron lunged its head forward, and began wading. I assumed it had spied a fish or some other prey.
Years before, I'd observed a blue heron wading in a pond at the other end of the creek. Now, the pond is overgrown, turned into a meadow. Suddenly on that day long ago, the bird took flight, majestically spreading its wings as it rose into the sky.
I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau's account of seeing a flock of blue herons flying overhead while on a river journey with his brother, John. The two brothers were on the Merrimack River when summer turned into autumn overnight. Through the years as I've walked through our neighborhood, I've imagined Thoreau beside me.
The blue heron and thoughts of Thoreau led me to write the following poem, which I read at the opening of the Blue Heron Nature Center. I was a young man then. Commonweal, the national Catholic literary and political journal, published the poem, which I rewrote countless times.
After Reading "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers"
By Louis T. Mayeux
At the pond by the condominiums,
the great blue heron
stalks the shallow water,
slow, lugubrious dance
Head speared for fish,
disturbing his own reflection,
he hunts along the edges.
One day, he stood, perfectly still,
as if at prayer,
then broke and flew
toward his endless blue freedom.
A flock of them in flight
astonished Henry and his brother John
as they prepared the raft
for their journey home,
strange, fierce wind behind them,
world changed to autumn overnight.
"Now comes good sailing,"
Henry said, death near,
as his sister, Sophia, read to him
his own words about that morning.