In a previous article Jeremy Nathan Marks wrote powerfully about how we can be changed suddenly and irrevocably by nature. Here he relates a further experience which enriched his life.
In 2006, I had been living in my apartment in Hamilton, Ontario for less than two months when a night-time September thunderstorm awakened me to an extraordinary reality eleven floors below my balcony.
The city of Hamilton is located on Burlington Bay, a small harbour at the head of Lake Ontario. The bay is separated from the lake by the Burlington Skyway, a large bridge that is part of the QEW, the Queen Elizabeth Way, a lakeside superhighway built in the 1960s as part of the major road building and transportation infrastructure projects common to the province at that time. When the highway and bridge were built, the ecology of the Great Lakes was not yet a concern for a development-oriented government and Burlington Bay, like Lake Ontario, and like the other bays, rivers, and creeks in the region was under significant stress from pollution.
Beginning in the early 1970s, local residents and activists began pushing for protections for local waterways and ecosystems and a decades-long effort began to clean up the bay. As part of this effort, attention was also turned to a smaller, still more delicate place called Cootes Paradise, a large pond that feeds into Burlington Bay. Cootes is enclosed by woods and trails on three sides with the campus of McMaster University close by. One of the attractions of the university grounds is the way they blend into the Cootes trails that wind through the woods around the water’s edge. Over the years, the health of this ecosystem has improved dramatically and it is common to see songbirds, waterfowl, rodents, foxes, and deer. Cormorants fish in the pond and the atmosphere is quite serene even though Crown Highway 403, the Chedoke Expressway, actually runs along the pond’s eastern bank.
My apartment building was located a short walk from the pond and my balcony overlooked a small canal draining into Cootes Paradise. Often I witnessed beavers swimming in the water, their dens buried beneath the banks, a fact that taught me there are both dam-building beavers and “bank beavers.” I enjoyed taking my tea and watching them swim past at various times of the day, it was one of the pleasures of my view. I also watched cormorants and Black Crowned Night Herons in the canal. The cormorants would swim and fish and dive while the herons would perch in the branches of trees hanging over the water. I would bring out my binoculars and watch them closely. I had never identified a Night Heron before: they are blue-grey and white with bright orange or red eyes and the males have a long white plume extending from the back of their heads that appears during the breeding season. These herons are short and squat compared to the Great Blue Heron, the species of heron I knew best, having grown quite familiar with them in my home state of Maryland.
On that September evening, just as summer was set to officially click into autumn, a violent thunderstorm rattled the city. Being up so high, I had a tremendous view of it moving across the skyline of downtown. It poured rain, there were tremendous lightning and thunder, and the winds were gusty. As I watched the storm pass over the city, I turned and looked down into the canal, facing north towards the pond’s edge. Standing perfectly still in the middle of the narrow water close to the canal’s mouth was a Great Blue Heron. It was perched on one leg and remained motionless amidst the unfolding tempest. The sight was captivating and I found myself deeply moved.
And then, for the second time in my life, I underwent a life-changing alteration of perspective.
The first occurrence was ten years before and was brought about by a small mountain near my home, an experience I have written about. This second time, I felt myself inhabiting the heron’s stillness and vitality in a manner that I can only describe as being of the heron, that is, from its perspective. The best literary analogy I can draw is Rainer Maria Rilke’s masterful poem, “The Panther.” That poem always elicited in me an interior movement, one that enabled me to empathize with the condition of the animal as described by Rilke. When I beheld that heron that September night, I underwent a physical and psychological transformation that I believe is present in these lines of Rilke:
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Rilke experienced that panther’s paralysis. In my case, I observed a heron that was free but like Rilke, (should I be allowed to make such a bold comparison), I feel that I was able to enter that bird’s body and become enfolded by its will and vitality, if but for the briefest of moments.
In the fourteen years since, I have learned more about how knowledge resides in our bodies. Not only human bodies of course, but in the form and limbs, the organs and skin and plumage, not to mention scales and segments and consciousness of animals. The living body is a remarkable structure whose intelligence and mētis we simply do not fully understand. This applies to all life, not merely human lives.
My own life is richer for having twice been drawn completely out of myself and into the awareness of Earth’s other living features. And I should emphasize how these features were non-human. I am capable of empathy and set high store by being able to connect with other human beings but these specific occurrences I speak of were of a different order. I should say, they were like dreams: I cannot tell you how long each pass lasted but like a potent dream, its effects have been lasting and the experience itself appeared to bend time and probably space.