Why I Write Outside: A Fish & the Heron

“Yet there is so much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in man. The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things.” Jung

The year before my public writing life began, when I was still only filling tiny private notebooks and dreaming of the artist’s life – to possess that quality of attention, to connect beyond friends and family – I began to work outside, pen on paper. Immersed myself in days, the elements and chance.

Then a bad day came. I was sitting by the pond near the outdoor pool that was too overwhelming for me at this tender time, and not another person came by all morning, despite the heat. What was I doing? Using up my first half of life’s savings to sit around writing for no one in these ridiculous books: thirty now and nothing to show for it.

I wished I could make a novel or memoir without effort, by sitting blank like the fishermen who came here in season, whose whole selves were concentrated in the finger upon which the line lightly rests: how they could go, in a spider-web’s tremor, from simply sitting to the expert reeling in of a catch.

This thought was had and then – direct in my eye-line – a great golden carp leapt up from the dark water. A sign, a wonder, I decided. I would give another full year to this private endeavour.

And then I got up to move benches, though I was already in the right depth of shade for that hot day. As I walked towards the appendix-end of the canal where I never normally went, I felt a rush of air by my side…

…heron in flight, intent on a fish. His wing on my cheek.

The bird was surprised by me as I was it. Landing mere feet away, it stretched, straightened, as if  trying to recover poise; still except for the eyes which were tracking me, calculating risk.

Like a fox seen up close, it was less magnificent than the idea of heron one holds in the head – it was a thin, wild thing, the coloured of boiled wool. Ragged-looking.

Dignity regathered, it flew then to the newly-coppiced island in the middle of the water. It was my first chance to watch up close that prehistoric weight which herons have in flight, so that I mistake them always  in the sky for pterodactyls.

And there he stayed an hour, making shapes with his calligraphic neck as if preparing to dip a quill into ink.

Between us the air is thick with thistledown.  I lowered my eyes to write that line and when I looked up he was gone. I was left both full and empty: Come back, I said aloud. Stay.

I looked down to my pen. Kept writing.

Postscript: A year later I am on residence at a world-class literary foundation between Lake Geneva and the Jura Mountains, my first public work – Wild Patience, a mile of writing on pool-length scrolls – having happened for two seasons just feet away from where I sat that day. As I reach the end of the last line of writing, just before midnight, I wonder what will finish it, this great labour of one hundred thousand words written pen on paper and largely in public? What will come to the surface and finish this thing? I ask. The heron comes, just as Hughes’ Thought Fox did: real, in the room: It enters the dark hole of the head/The window is starless still; the clock ticks,/The page is printed.


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