A big drainage canal runs behind my office — a wide channel, lined with concrete, that takes away the neighborhood’s rain.
Though the canal does important work, few would consider it an appealing landmark. Chain-link fences line both banks, telling the world to stay away. On most days, it’s a message I easily oblige. For much of the year, as I walk through our office parking lot, the canal is far from mind.
But one recent evening, as I headed to my car at the end of a workday, a white flash, vivid as lightning, caught the corner of my eye. Tracing the flash to its source, I discovered that four egrets had flown into the canal to look for dinner.
About egrets, you already know. They’re tall, white birds, elegant as a length of calligraphy, and fairly common even in Louisiana’s cities, where they’ve adapted by hunting in canals and roadside ditches.
I stood by the fence and watched the egrets for a few moments as they combed the canal for prey — maybe a tiny fish or two, or some frogs to make a meal. As somber as poets pecking at their keyboards, the egrets stooped over the shallow residue of a recent storm, stabbing the water occasionally as they found their quarry.
It did me good to see them, and so I've made a habit of stopping by the fence before and after I start my work shift, hoping to spot the egrets again. We’ve been connecting about twice a week, their presence so routine that my heart sank a bit when just three of the egrets appeared one evening. Had the fourth bird met a bad end? He was back for the next visit, though, the quartet now complete. I was pleased to see this tiny part of my life once again made whole.
You might wonder why, in a world so harried and frayed this autumn, a grown man would be making appointments with egrets. Wendell Berry, a writer I love, explained it much better than I ever could in one of his best poems, “The Peace of Wild Things.”
“When despair for the world grows in me,” he tells readers, “and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”
In seeing creatures unworried by humanity’s cares, Berry suggests, we can get out of ourselves for a while. It’s something many of us have needed in this broken time.
“I come into the peace of wild things,” he writes, “who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
I watch egrets, I suppose, because in this wounded year, peace of any kind is a gift too precious to ignore.