Sunday, August 21, 2011
A Tall Grayish Figure (Part I)
That morning I’d run my usual route up the hill to R, down to P, across the bridge and through the neighborhoods of Dupont Circle working my way to M Street. I ran along silent and empty M into Georgetown where it was only me and the water truck showering the large baskets of pink petunias hanging from the lamp posts. I turned left and followed 29th, enjoying the ease of the downhill, until I came to the canal and turned right to follow the narrow green path alongside it, past a homeless man sleeping on a bench, then under the huge mulberry tree which drops its dark purple fruit into the water below where the turtles snap them up like sweet, juicy bugs.
I got to the place where the old brick buildings tower overhead and cling to the high edge of the tall stone wall. To my left the water was a dark green, unmoving. Up ahead I could see something on the path, a tall grayish figure. I hesitated, aware that there were no stone steps out, no escape route back up into the city. And the path was very narrow. I wondered how deep the canal was and once in would I be able to pull myself up over the other side. My legs kept moving forward, though – once running I’m reluctant to stop for fear I won’t start again – and the figure grew larger. To my relief, the ill-defined shape formed itself not into threatening man but into bird. A huge bird; a Great Blue Heron peering down into the canal. I slowed then so as not to startle the bird. I assumed he would take flight immediately anyway, but he didn’t, even as I came within a few feet of him. He was as tall as I, standing at the edge with a lonely and contemplative dignity, attired in soft grays and whites and embellished with wisps of delicate, long feathers. What did he see in the depths? He seemed not to notice me as I admired him and then walked past him to continue my run.
A few weeks later I was again running along the canal path, this time in the opposite direction, to where the canal slips away and curves off towards the Potomac. It was a bright Sunday morning. Again the city was still and quiet. At the bend in the canal the tall gray figure stood, his slim face and long yellow beak turned towards the sun, wings spread wide to absorb the warmth. His eyes were closed – at least that is the way I remember it. I slowed and then stopped to watch him for a few minutes, wondering what a heron thinks – ancient memories passed down through heron generations of swamps brimming with frogs and quiet ponds jumping with unwary fish...unhurried flights over lush green landscapes, or maybe of empty and lonely places that have never known the taint of man.