The Path of the Heron


It feels like we’re on the cusp of another lock-down, and like many sequels to must-see originals, it feels rushed, unstructured and full of tired and under-developed characters. Autumn is pulling us slowing into it with its usual blend of beauty and doom, and winter has never been so collectively forbidding. And while there is much tragedy and griping to come, not least towards the incompetents who supposedly lead us, I still have belief in our collectivity and our community fortitude. We’re good at winters, we handle them every year of our lives, and we’ll find excellent ways to adapt. We may even discover surprising new methods to do ancient rituals: let us brace ourselves now for an unusual yuletide and use it to try on some different costumes.

Yesterday, I managed to snatch some quality time in the actual physical presence of a dear friend and we took to the rural edges of the suburbs to while away the afternoon in catch-up chat and giggles. The long stroll took us from Didsbury (with its embarrassment of autumnal riches), along the banks of the river Mersey, and then around the lake at Chorlton Water Park and back. For readers unfamiliar with Manchester, that is indeed the same Mersey that more famously empties out through Liverpool, criss-crossed by ferries. Here, that mighty waterway of industry is rather more demur as it skirts around the outer edge of Manchester’s suburbs, as if cautious of the ghosts of the factories and warehouses that once choked the centre. It sits in deep banks, sweeping around in pleasing curves, as if drawn there by a child. Edged by lots of exceptionally pleasant woodlands, and feeding a number of delightful parks and nature reserves, this part of the Mersey feels like a cheery, generous, dependable friend for those city-locked urbanites who crave a quick escape.

A perfect place then to catch-up with a similarly cheery, generous, and dependable friend. As we neared the way down to the river, she mentioned how other local friends had reported encounters with herons, and other such majestic creatures, in this bit of the world that sits pretty much on her doorstep, but which she’d rarely visited herself. The first lockdown encouraged many of us to rediscover the natural wilds and habitats of our neighborhoods; Hannah and I had made a similar discovery in the shape of Stretford Meadows, a neat little reserve not ten minutes from our house. Indeed, the germ of this very blog was this unexpected reconnection with the flora and fauna that pervades our localities, but that we don’t often take notice of in our buzy-bee city lives. We think of nature as being that mass of greenness that fills in the gaps between cities where we might spend the odd sunny Sunday with picnics, flasks, and hiking boots. But cities are far from natureless wastelands - that was one thing the sci-fi writers of days gone got utterly wrong. We cannot quit our trees and grasses, and nor should we.

Well no sooner was the fabled heron invoked by my friend, than we were treated to a close encounter. There, just off the path that follows the river, waited a particularly pointy and lanky specimen, barely metres away. My friend didn’t see it at first; remarkable how such an enormous and striking creature blends in with the environment so well, just by virtue of its exemplary stillness. It was as if it had sliced its way out from an alternate dimension, using its beak like the titular blade from Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife and stepping through, just for us. We stopped and watched it watch us for a while. It soon tired of our wows and look at thats and decided to abandon its spot in favour of the actual riverbank. But it didn’t fly off straight away, taking to the path for a spell instead, sneaking along on its spindly legs, its head turned to keep one sharp eye on us. We followed, as if expecting it to lead us to the sliced portal into the alternative universe where Brexit never happened, where Covid was stopped before it spread, where Trump was languishing in some late-night show on some laughable cable channel, spouting increasingly spectacular conspiracy theories for a hardcore group of followers, before being arrested for fraud and chucked in Riker’s Island. But perhaps we got too close because it showed us no such place. Instead, it opened those prehistoric wings and swept down to the waters.

That was our path anyway, and we stuck to it. Along the river, around the lake, and back again. We are but two people who can only guess what the future holds and what the past means, but we talk about it all anyway because that’s what human beings do when they take to the sides of rivers and lakes. If the heron was leading us to anything, it was exactly that: to see the here and now and be part of it. Today, Hannah is out and about with her best friend on one of their periodical adventures exploring the Lake District. I’ve told her to be on the look out for animal encounters and report back. This stuff is important to us. These moments anchor us to life itself.

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