A pair of Yellow-Crowned Night Herons (Nyctanassa violacea) are making themselves at home in the tall oak tree that overhangs my outdoor meditation and ritual space. I noticed them in March during my afternoon after-work chill out meditation period. I’d been sitting and quietly enjoying the sight of the trees tossing their heads in the wind, the sound of the wind ruffling its fingers through their leaves accompanied by the occasional birdsong, and the smells of rain, wet leaves and earth when something fairly large flew over.
At first I dismissed it as one of the tree ducks we get from time to time (these would be Black-Bellied Whistling-Ducks or Dendrocygna autumnalis, if you want to look them up.) Then one of them perched on a limb high above my stump-seat, but directly in my field of vision. She cocked her head and gave me a good long look-over. When I glanced over my shoulder, the second heron was perched on another limb, eyeing up the dry bits of deadwood that hadn’t survived the winter. Male night herons are responsible for choosing a site and beginning the nest-building. I stayed and watched them get their bearings for a while, then offered the young mother a blessing as I returned to the house.
This isn’t the night herons’ first appearance here. When I checked their entry in the old copy of the Peterson Field Guide there was a note in my mother’s spidery script next to the little map showing their range: “Nesting back yard 2011.” I remember seeing them last spring, too, and pointing them out. The Hermitage’s location – so close to the Gulf of Mexico that we can smell the salt water when the wind blows from the right direction, only a few miles west of the San Jacinto River, and southeast of Sheldon Lake State Park (a reclaimed wetland) – means that I have a constant stream of waterfowl flying overhead. The mornings and evenings are punctuated by the calls of sea-gulls, moving between the ship channel and the wetland park in search of good pickings. Egrets wander through the area, though they rarely stop for long. Canada Geese fly overhead during their annual migrations. And, of course, the tree ducks are almost ubiquitous, squawking through the trees at dusk.
Herons don’t appear much in mythology. The Iroquois considered them good luck for fishermen, but it’s not hard too see that affiliation. There is also a mention of them associated with Athena in the Illiad. In the New Kingdom Period in Egypt, the heron was associated with the deity Bennu – “He Who Came Into Being By Himself” – a god of creation and rebirth.†
My most common form of meditation is close to the Shikantaza of Soto Zen, often called “just sitting.” My eyes are open: I don’t try to see any particular thing, but I don’t try to not see anything, either. I don’t pay attention to stray thoughts, but let them glide by. I listen to the voice of the wind and the woods, to the voice of the highway and the children playing in my neighbors’ yards, to the birds and the chattering of the squirrels. I feel the hard wood of the up-turned log beneath me, the moist coolness of the earth beneath my feet, the wind in my hair and on my skin. Occasionally, something seems to want my attention, and I will sometimes focus briefly on that thing, but not for long. Occasionally, too, I’ll pray briefly to Habondia or Cernunnos, touching on something from the outside world or an inner concern. Mostly, though, I just abide.
It’s a good word – abide. It’s comfortable, calm, a bit old-fashioned. Like any old word, it has a number of meanings, ranging from endure or suffer through comply or accept. The meaning I’m using here, though, is to be stable, or to remain in a place.‡ The dictionary suggests sojourn as a synonym, but I’m not as pleased with it. Sojourn means to stay briefly in a place. Abide has a sense of calm permanence. It’s not always an easy sense to find.
The eremitic life has a lot that feels unstable – doubts creep in. Am I doing this right? Why am I doing this? What’s the point? I suppose this is where the enduring and suffering come in – and ultimately, the complying and accepting.
In the Garden:
The blackberry – all right dewberry – brambles in the back of the lot are in full bloom. I should be able to harvest berries around Beltane. The mulberry trees are looking good, and I planted three rhizome starts of Solomon’s Seal in the east hedgerow, between one of the mulberries and a stand of native Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria). Yaupon makes an excellent coffee substitute if the leaves are lightly roasted to release their caffeine. The flavor is somewhere between black tea and coffee. There are wild garlic flowers blooming in the shade of the house, and the lantana is in full bloom, attracting Greater Swallowtail butterflies to sail across the yard.
My daughter and her family visited for a while just after Ostara, so I got to spend a little time in the garden with my four-year-old grandson. He helped me with the chickens – “help” from a four-year-old is usually pretty subjective, but he was able to get to areas I couldn’t reach because of my knees – and we planted a row of Glass Gem popcorn together. After they left for home, I planted the rest of the Three Sisters bed with Cherokee White Eagle corn, an heirloom Italian zucchini, and Kentucky Wonder beans.
The russet potatoes came out just before Ostara. It was early, and I only got a small crop of new potato-sized spuds. We’d had a couple of weeks of cool, wet, overcast weather followed by hot, dry, sunny weather and the poor things went into shock and started to wither and yellow. Considering I’d just planted them on a whim and didn’t expect to get anything at all, a double handful of soup potatoes is a pretty good return.
Neither of the pear trees will be setting fruit again this year. They both bloomed early and sparsely. They had been blooming fitfully over and over all last summer, so this isn’t a surprise. I’m going to have to make a decision about the Bartlet soon. It’s entirely wrong for this area; I could replace it with a Moonglow, which needs fewer cold hours and would produce well, but I hate to pull out a healthy tree.
I did pull a large green plant – the only survivor from a pack of mixed salad greens that I planted in a tub last fall. It’s a kale or mustard or something of the sort. I plan on throwing it in a pot of chicken broth with some small russet potatoes, carrots, and a bit of hard sausage for soup.
Around the Hermitage:
It’s been a bittersweet time in the hermitage itself. My niece came for a visit and we cleared out Mom’s wardrobe and personal items, as well as several closets that hadn’t been cleaned out in years. The contents of the kitchen cabinets are spread out on the dining room table, waiting for me to make decisions about what to keep, what to donate, what might sell to help defray some of the costs of doing necessary work on the house.
I’m also in the process of rearranging the kitchen cabinets so that they work for the way I live and cook. The majority will go to Goodwill, or perhaps the Salvation Army, since they’ll pick up heavy items like furniture. There are so many memories wrapped up in the things I’m finding tucked away in corners of cabinets and closets, but I don’t need the things themselves. Here, they’ll be wasted. Releasing them will allow some other person to find joy or comfort in them and build new memories of their own.
And then, there are the things we never expected to find: my grandfather’s high school report cards and class photo from his sophomore and senior years — Class of 1912. (There were only three years of high school at the time; the fourth year wasn’t added until 1944. I know this because it’s one of the reasons Mom dropped out.) There were also a set of keepsake photos of his classmates – three young men who must have been special friends, and several young ladies who likely wanted to be. We also located the letters that my Dad had sent Mom from Puerto Rico during WWII, all bound together with a pink ribbon. One of the envelopes had a red lipstick print on the back. I’m planning to spend some time organizing and transcribing them, getting them into appropriate alkaline-buffered folders for preservation.
Like I said: bittersweet. But this is what we humans do, isn’t it? We save little bits and bobs of ourselves, passing them from one generation to the next, little bittersweet tidbits that we never share when alive. Each generation absorbs them, adds bits and bobs of their own, and on and on it goes. Mostly, though, we abide.
†Hart, George, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Second Edition, 2005. pp. 48–49
‡”Abide.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.