Living Things: Heron

Adam R. Burnett
7 min readOct 5, 2019


The mystery and awe of the heron, a bird who can remain so still and move so slowly as to disappear. The heron is a magician, once there and once gone in the cattails. My eyes always attune to their shape, the long neck that stretches in curiosity, and the sloping gait of its middle. As soon as my eyes fall upon a body of water — river, lake, pond — I look for heron.

Blue heron in Mud Lake, adjoined to Fish Hook River & Fish Hook Lake (Minnesota), August 2019

My father’s mechanical obsessions cycle every decade; he is currently in his RV phase. During my first decade was the motorcycle phase, specifically Harley Davidson’s. Our tick-covered dog, a mix of Chow-Chow and Siberian Husky, who in his final years ran with coyotes and feral dogs downing cows across the county, was a corollary to the motorcycle decade: Harley the motorcycle and Harley the dog.

Harley the dog was wild. Although he slept in the plastic igloo doghouse, bedded in straw, behind the house, he roamed Jefferson County as a fierce provocateur. It was a stress to my father, who suffered the complaints of farmers and neighbors from miles around. I loved Harley for this nature, for shucking domesticity to quench his bloodthirst with a motley pack of wild dogs. I never felt more secure than when Harley, gone for days, would run up to the porch, muzzle matted in dry blood, tuck his head under my arms and lean into me, heavy and drowsy from untold hunts. Harley who attacked just about every other living thing, other than me. In the midst of a tumultuous and depressive childhood, I had this creature who taught me a duality of being: ravenous & feral; gentle & tame.

My father and one of the motorcycles.

Harley the bike, I could care less about it. The muffler’s pronouncement of gruff masculinity felt an affront. And so very effortful. Like the rotating door of court appointed counselors who wanted to “be my buddy”, the effort of the motorcycle left me unimpressed. Every time the motorcycle’s engines ignited, I covered my ears and cowered. Nor did I appreciate covering my head in the bucket of a helmet, my neck disabled, unable to swivel under its weight. Furthermore, the intimacy of wrapping arms around another human being for an extended period of time, unlike the embrace of Harley the dog, made my skin jump.

But my father was ever persistent to open me to human connection. As is still my wont, I was drawn to the floor, to the space below people, the realm of toys or books, hidden under blankets, in beds, closets, or closed bathrooms, for quiet spaces where, unwatched, I’d couple with the ideas and voices generated in my head. With only a precious few days to see me each month, I now, year later, recognize my father’s pain, of having a child who immediately shut him out to move further inward, away from the world.

It was on one of the few motorcycle rides that my father cajoled out of me, that he introduced the sanctuary, an estuary, a marsh where the Delaware River opens itself into the human-engineered Perry Lake. The Delaware is a muddy tributary running south-east through north-east Kansas, through the Kickapoo Tribe Reservation, through miles of farmland and woods, into Perry Lake, and finally depositing in the Kansas River.

The wind funneling through the heavy bucket helmet, the constant refrain of, “What!?”, the motorcycle slowing to rumbling throttle. These vibrations leaving the body satisfyingly numb and tingly in the aftermath of the ride. “That heron is always there,” my father said, pointing, directing my vision to the statuesque blue heron standing tall, alert as we came to a halt among the pull-off gravel.

As when often encountering an animal in their absolute present tense, this moment was magnified by a hush, the rest of the world quieting as I saw only the heron. I don’t remember knowing a heron before this one and, twenty-five years later, it remains burnt in a constellation of memories with living things. I dreamed of the heron often, the estuary, these wetlands which transported my imagination to other ecosystems of possibilities: swamps, bogs, mires. My father took me back from time to time, though rarely on the motorcycle. Sometimes the heron was there, other times not; but there were ducks and geese and eagles and hawks, and the avian world, of water and sky, opened and was, alongside the water worlds, suddenly available to me as well.

But it was the heron that left me with a warm and satisfying chill; that it had a place so remote and beautiful to call home made my own world feel more secure. Before I understood the dynamic migrations of birds, I imagined this marsh as the blue heron’s constant home. What I knew intuitively then, that the blue heron and all more-than-humans are keepers of the land, was ultimately erased through the purposeful work of schooling and culture, awaiting till recent years for rediscovery. This hush of the heron three decades aog has accompanied me as a gift to cultivate in my traverses of water worlds: from Fish Hook Lake in Minnesota where I would come to love the loon, to the bosque along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque where I would come to adore the sandhill crane. All encounters with living things make space for all future living things.

In spring of 2018 I spent a month in Wyoming, researching the lakes of Minnesota on the high plains of the West in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountain Range.

My ritual in Wyoming was in communing with two nesting herons in a copse of trees next to Piney Creek. Piney Creek roams snake-like through the eastern basin of the Big Horn’s, running through private properties and multiple artist residencies (Jentel, Ucross), as it winds its way away. The spring I spent near Pinkey Creek it flooded from a record snowmelt, nearly washing Jentel away. The flood brought countless fascinating creatures through the grounds, including a beaver I briefly communed with, to our mutual surprise.

Nesting heron on Piney Creek (Wyoming); May 2018

Each morning I road a bike down the rocky road that led to the residency and stood some 200 yards from the herons. Watching them watch me, and watching them back, until they no longer needed to watch me. Gaining a familiarity with a living thing, and the patience to do so, is not allotted in the time signature of capitalism. It is a waste. It has no value. What is there to gain from watching nesting herons for half an hour that you are purposefully not studying? It is just that. It is just in asking this question, shrugging your shoulders to say, “Absolutely nothing.” But this is antithetical to the history of Europeanization of the world, the machine of profits and gains, the judgment upon wasted time and effort.

It was not easy to leave Wyoming when the time came, and it was with hesitation that I drove away from those trees, letting the wheels move the vehicle without pressing the gas. Craning my neck to drink in the vision one last time, to imprint, like the heron in the estuary in Kansas twenty-five years ago, these Piney Creek herons into my dreams forever, to return to them for medicine wherever I may be — in apartment in Brooklyn, on the subway in Montreal, or where I currently take space, writing at a desk in musty, beloved cottage in the Hudson River Valley, wasps bumbling sleepily into the warping windows as the weather flexes toward fall.

These moments with living things will collect as a conscious conjuring, or a space of prayer, so that the stories of animals, and entire ecosystems and landscapes, can be seen in a duality — present and historied, dynamically changing and changed by our presence.

These living things are also a means to heal a history of violence toward nature and the earth. Inflicted with the judeo-christian doctrine to fear nature, to define it as a source of evil, as my youth was a series of torture toward the undomesticated: so many ants and beetles squashed, so many mice and grasshoppers murdered, so many rocks thrown at beehives and birds nest’s, and so much trash thrown out car windows along I-70 in Kansas. The doctrine of human supremacy, that this earth is here to use, abuse and destroy, was the hallmark of my growing.

These living things will attempt to irrevocably reverse that, to steward a language for living things.

I look forward to sharing these not-so-much memoirs of living things, stories that find their spaces in the medicine of the animal, of spiders, bison, dragonfly, rabbit, ticks, coyote, cats, snakes, and wasps; of lakes, rivers, ponds, and arroyos; of plains, deserts, mountains, and wetlands.

field near Piney Creek, Blue Horn Mountain basin range (Wyoming); May 2018