Why this story; why now?
I wrote this memoir piece on the last gasping breath of the 1980s. In those days, I was more serious about trying to sell writing, and I sent it out various places late in 1989.
I spent the summer of 1990 in Missoula, Montana. I lived in a little apartment down by the Clark Fork River, and every day I walked to the post office–mostly for the walk, and also for whatever letters or bills might have winkled me out. One day, I found a check in the mail from First for Women Magazine for $1500. I was over the moon! It was my first big sale (yeah, okay, my ONLY big sale, like, in my entire life), and I ran screaming down the street waving the check in the air.
I worked with a line editor over the next few weeks, and the story came out for Father’s Day in 1991 (no, that can’t be right. Maybe I was in Missoula in 1989…? Scary how the years run together…). It was liking dropping a manuscript from 13,000 feet– I never heard it hit. That magazine has millions of readers, and only one stranger ever said anything to me about it. An author my editor said was well-known complimented her on my story saying it reminded him of E.B. White’s classic 1941 memoir essay, “Once More to the Lake.”
In September 1968, I was in my frosh year at Washington State University, and I enrolled in the required introductory writing class (one I have now taught myself literally hundreds of times). The first essay Dr. Taylor assigned was that same E.B. White essay, “Once More to the Lake.” I learned the art of deep reading on that essay, and it went in deep, too–all the way into my writer’s RNA.
Did I remember that essay while I was writing “The Heronry”? No. “The Heronry” is a true story, and I was struggling to put it down detail by detail, trying hard to get it right.
On retrospect, do I think the shape of the story was unconsciously influenced by E.B. White? Absolutely.
Recently a friend, John Gray, and I were reading the same essay by Natalie Goldberg, “The Lost Purse,” in her new book The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life. It seems to me that the story has so many elements that echo, bounce off, run parallel to “Once More to the Lake.” John’s question was whether or not Goldberg would be aware of or acknowledge the correlation. My answer is in my experience.
Rare is the writer of my generation who hasn’t read White. We all have him down there in our unconscious minds along with the rest of the Norton Anthologies that were standard in the English major curriculum. This stuff doesn’t have to surface consciously for it to shape our thinking and creating. I have no doubt if the similarities were delineated for Goldberg that she’d get a big kick out of seeing how that magic continues to work.
I, for one, love this back and forth weave of just one story strand in and out of my own life, adding strength to whole.
(Originally published as “To the Lake,” in First for Women which started out as a decent magazine that included fiction and memoir. It has turned into something else, I’m sorry to say.)
By Sandy Brown Jensen
There is a lake called Moses in Washington State, and the Great Blue Herons come there to nest and breed in the cold, sharp spring. They feed on fish and frogs and salamanders. The fisherfolk say that the herons catch the trout before they can get around to it themselves, and for that reason they dislike the birds. The tall herons with their awkward grace and unseemly nesting habits fascinated my father, a half-hearted angler at best. He liked to photograph the birds as they flew up the Wenatchee River by our house. This seldom happened, however, for although it is nothing for the herons to fly 30 or 40 miles on a hunt, the Moses Lake heronry was twice that distance from our home and we saw only the occasional lone hunter.
So one morning when I was 15 years old my father and I lashed our red, eight-foot fiberglass boat to the roof of the car and drove over the Columbia River Bridge, and east across the Columbia Plateau to Moses Lake. The day was cold with a thin March sunshine. I was looking forward to this outing in my father’s company, a thing which had never happened–not just him and me without the surrounding activity of Mom and the other kids. I was shy with him and didn’t know how to make conversation, or how to ask the questions that burned in me to be asked.
He didn’t much know what to make of me either. I swung hourly between incessant chattering and agonized shyness. Clothes didn’t fit, ideas didn’t fit. I wanted to think of myself as graceful and was humiliated when someone saw me drop a plate or trip over my own feet. I, like all adolescent girls, yearned for something from my father that few men know how to give. I wanted him to reassure me that I was beautiful and intelligent, when in fact I was neither. I wanted to be given sexual poise and adult status yet retain the amniotic blindness of childhood. I longed for intimacy of the spirit, yet was surprised when it came.
“Tell me about the herons.” I considered this question many miles before I found voice to say the words. My father was beautiful and intelligent, and I was all but inarticulate before him. The question broke the silence. His blue eyes wrinkled at the corners and his blond head kept turning from the road to me as he talked. At first I didn’t think he was looking at me; I thought he saw something out the window on the other side of my head.
He pointed to a flock of long-legged birds flying low across the marsh, against the pewter sky. “Those are Great Blue Herons, the tallest native bird. You can tell them apart from cranes by the way they fly. Look.” The car slowed. “See, the cranes fly with their necks straight out.”
I knew the difference between herons and cranes by the time I was six years old, but my father was a walking encyclopedia and taught us by repeating information over and over in different combinations, in different settings. While riding long-distances in the car (to photograph a flower in Mexico that bloomed only once every seven years) Daddy would amuse himself by asking us the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool, a dove and a pigeon, a robin and thrush–or the common name of ranunculus glaberimus.
He stopped the car and we got out. From an island a few hundred yards offshore came the boom of wings. A flock of forty birds circled over the road. Daddy handed me the binoculars. Pointing, he said, “Those are the Great Blues. See how they fly with their necks folded back in a flat “S” loop?
I brought the field glasses back from the flying herons to the island rookery. The bare trees were full of huge scraggly nests. I spotted the young birds. Excited, I handed the glasses back to Daddy, “Look, you can see the chicks with their beaks open.”
He looked for a long time. “Good eye,” he said. I blushed with the casual praise. My father seldom complimented me on anything I can remember, except my powers of observation which became so much like his. Vision was his gift to me, the ability to observe the natural world, its health and beauty and intricacy.
“In fact, I think you’ve spotted a good rookery. We’ll row over together in the boat. I’ll set up a birdblind at one end and you row back to shore. The birds know enough to see a boat come over and that disturbs them; then they see a boat return and they relax. They don’t count two people coming and only one going back. If I’m careful they won’t spot me and I can get some good pictures. You come back in a few hours and pick me up.”
My disappointment was sharp. I had looked forward to spending the day with him. I felt I was being abandoned. But my logical mind knew he was treating me like an adult, trusting me with the boat and the day. If I yielded to my emotion, showed him my need, no doubt his response would be warmer–but the results would be the same: I’d leave with the boat. Or if he let me stay with him, the birds would be disturbed and I’d be responsible for ruining his outing.
The shoreline was steep here–huge tumbled boulders falling straight off into deep water. I was barely strong enough to handle my end of the boat as we maneuvered it down the rocks. Finally settled on the water, the boat bobbed like a red fisherman’s float, the large white name, “Tonalea,” painted in block letters on the stern. Tonalea was the name of a remote desert town, symbolizing the edge of frontier, the beginning of wilderness to my parents who felt that indeed in wildness is the preservation of the world.
Out on the lake my father pointed out terns, mallards, grebes, shikepokes and goldeneye to me. The lake was alive with birds, their voices carrying in graaks and whistles and creaks across the surface. Daddy stopped with the oars in the air so I could look down and see the dim shapes of fish far below in the green and black water.
“Rainbows,” he said, “Bass, crappie, sunfish. In the summer we’ll go to Ol’ Sullivan Dam at the other end of the lake and catch sunfish and grill them on a greasewood fire.” As I listened to him my mind opened and I received the images of the world that he described as well as the words. I saw how the interconnected strands of the natural world were like a spider’s web–each movement along a strand was conveyed to every other part of the web. The day was movement, flux, and light, from the smallest insect to the birds and lake and the weather above.
We landed on the south end of the island, together pulling the boat, one hand each, side by side on the gunwale, black sand grating under the hull. We hiked into the central thicket of willow and built a birdblind there. The noise of the heronry was terrific, all grunts and squawks of old and young birds. The smell of cottonwood mixed with the decaying remains of infertile eggs, lost food and other waste materials from the nests. The herons were not tidy housekeepers. Their nests were enormous, untidy architectures of broken sticks. The air churned with constant movement, the birds well aware of our presence. The adult Great Blue herons stood about four feet tall and had long sharp bills that Daddy said could be a dangerous weapon when the bird is attacked.
I left Daddy crouched down inside the blind setting up a tripod. “Let’s synchronize watches,” he said, “Why don’t you come back for me at 4:00 and we’ll have lunch on the way home?” I was hungry then, but felt there was a communion in shared meals and would have starved for a week to sit in a car and share a sandwich with my father.
I rowed back over glassy water. Daddy pointed out that the lake had a strong current north to south and suggested I row uplake so that on the way back it would be easy to hit the island. The going was smooth so I landed a half mile upshore from the car. There were no sticks to tie the boat to so I wrapped the tow rope around a rock and built a cairn over it. Tonalea bumped against the rocks, but the tough fiberglass was all but impossible to scratch.
The climb to roadbed level, combined with the row, left me breathless and warm. I looked back at the island and tried to spot Daddy in his birdblind. From the place where he was an exceptionally large heron flapped gently skyward. I had heard from the Indians around Colville about totem animals–how the spirit of each person has affinity with that of an animal, and on occasion, if the light is just right, or the time of day holds suspended, then the person can become that animal and learn their ways, see the world through different eyes. I wondered if I was seeing my father turn into a Great Blue Heron, flying with dignity northward up Moses Lake, his neck folded back in a flat “S” loop. I knew he was looking down from his great distance at the rainbow trout and bass and sunfish. I knew he could see me and thought he nodded his feathered head.
On the other side of the roadbed the marsh opened up. There I spent the day with the red-winged blackbirds and the horned larks among the tule rushes and cattails. The earliest spring monkeyflowers grew red and yellow along the streambeds, and there were toads and crawdaddies and salamanders. I especially liked the waterskippers because of their bear-paw shadows. It was an easy world to get lost in. My mother and I used to play the game of imagining we were tiny skindivers, exploring the aquatic landscapes created by rivulets and other miniature flows of water. Now I played this game in the life-and-death fastnesses of the marsh. I braided feathers and reeds together, performing small ceremonies on mossy promontories. A raft with two spiders set sail on a blue stream. Slowly the day around me began to lose light and what little warmth there was. Clouds that must have gathered earlier on the horizon marched forward and started to mill briskly around each other. I looked up from my play when I felt the temperature drop quickly. Shivering, I remembered my mission, my father, and the island–and ran for the boat.
White caps tipped the waves and the wind ran south with the lake current. Frightened not so much by the change in weather, but by my failure to notice it earlier, I got the boat out on the water, pulling as strongly as I could for the island. The few hundred feet seemed like a mile. Halfway across the rain came down, slanting across the dark water, obscuring the shore. The current pulled me south faster than I could row. If I missed the island it was rough open water all the way to Ol’ Sullivan Dam. Turning to look over my shoulder I saw Daddy on the southernmost shoal, wading out into the lake. I was rowing like an Amazon, strength coming to me like a force of nature and I was still going to miss the island.
“Throw me the rope!” His voice blew downwind to me, seeming to come from inside my own head. I clambered forward, quickly coiled the rope like a lariat and threw it upwind. It landed a yard from Daddy who lunged, wet to his waist, to catch hold of it. He hauled me in and together we loaded his expensive camera equipment in under the gunwale, securing it with a tarpaulin.
“Pull the boat!” Daddy shouted at me. Together we towed the boat the quarter mile length of the island. I was not used to physical hardship. Rock and mountain climbing, horseback riding and canoeing were all part of my daily life, but hard work was always for the men. I didn’t know about strength, about stamina or where one found such things in oneself. I was a frightened adolescent girl feeling her weakness against the storm, yet surprised by what strength I had found in the rowing. I felt like a leaf or a twig torn off a cottonwood and flung into the wind, abandoned, exhilarated.
At the top of the island Daddy and I got into the boat, sitting side by side, each with an oar. The rain turned to sleet.
“Pull,” he said, “Pull. Hard.” We quickly got a rhythm–no doubt he adjusted the power of his stroke to mine, and we headed for the opposite shore. Halfway across the current pulled us south of the car, and then we were south of the island, headed rapidly downlake and still rowing deeply, steadily, with concentration. I felt the cold wind and sleet against the side of my face but I was warm in the shadow of my father, and there was nothing on my mind but keeping my body and oar synchronous with Daddy’s. I am aware now of the sexual power there was in that struggle against the storm and I think that it is this that fathers have to give their daughters: experiences of union which teach the pleasures of fearlessness, intimacy and power in the most innocent ways.
We completed the few hundred yard crossing a mile south. The roadbed was not directly above us, for it turned inland a few hundred yards from where we had parked. There were no choices–we had to tow the boat back over the interminable boulders, crawling up and sliding down, looking for footings, the two of us sharing the weight of the tow rope on our shoulders. The wind and sleet settled down into a continual, cold opposing force.
Daddy turned around once and asked, “How’s it going?” My shoulders ached, both of them, as I kept switching the rope from side to side to relieve the pain, but it was useless to mention it–it wouldn’t change what had to be done. I nodded my head and half-panted, “Fine.”
“Good girl.” When we rested it was in the lee of a boulder. The wind changed direction and the clouds broke up. Daddy pointed out a huge ragged heron hung suspended in the north wind, effortlessly, as if preoccupied by some profound thought or image. The long legs trailed out behind, acting as a kind of rudder, holding the long, tucked-up head into the wind. I felt I was in the primordial place where creation is made. Within the surround of the invisible wind and the cold water and the warm will of my father all things were possible. I was in girl form but the life of a heron was comprehensible to me, its wildness, its strand of belonging so woven into the web of life at the lake. My father and I were woven into that web: the wind was our thought, the water our depth. We had the heron’s eyes and saw far out over the land.
The cold kept us from resting too long. After a while it got dark and the storm continued. I couldn’t guess how Daddy would know when we arrived at the place where the car would be above us on the road. The journey with the boat on my back was like my journey into adulthood, and hence was to have no end.
“Here,” he said, pointing, and I recognized a boulder blacker than the others, a chunk of vesicular basalt that was rough rather than rounded like the others. It wasn’t the end, though. In a final effort, we hauled the camera equipment to the car, then returned for the boat, which the lake preferred to take as sacrifice and was reluctant to yield up. Against the pressure of a steady wind and the sucking of the lake, we turned Tonalea over like a canoe and began carrying her up the steep boulder slope. Daddy would go up one boulder, then brace the boat while I scrambled down and up onto another. Wrestling the boat was like trying to manhandle a fiberglass leviathan. The wind and our fatigue battled us, causing us to drop her several times. When we reached the roadbed and had to heave the boat on top of the car, I couldn’t do it. Shaking all over, my arms limp with exhaustion, I leaned against the car door, sweat chilling against my skin as it dried.
“Let’s catch our breath,” Daddy suggested, “then try it again.”
The second time strength surged up from my spine and the boat fell into place. I managed the latches and ropes on my side with blue, numb lumps of fingers.
We got into the car. Daddy turned on the motor. Soon the floor heater was blasting. I was shivering uncontrollably, teeth chattering. I was delirious with fatigue and cold and what I had seen out on the lake of both myself and my father. I had seen that on the lake he and I were equal–we each faced the storm and the task alone–and yet together. I’d learned something about my own strength, that it was a force of nature no less than the wind. And I’d seen how my father was essentially wild and beautiful, like the birds. Daddy unwrapped tamale pie sandwiches and handed me one. We had graham crackers with chocolate frosting and, although I had never tried coffee before, Daddy poured us each a cup from a thermos.
“Feel better?” he asked, pulling out onto the road. He turned his head and looked at me, then winked. We were in this together. As we reached the far end of the lake a long line of Great Blues flew low in front of the windshield, the headlights shining on their long wing feathers. One by one they turned their heads to peer curiously in at us, then banked sharply up and over the car, heading back towards the dark lake.
“Did you see that?” Daddy exclaimed. “Did you see that?”
We saw the herons again many times during that difficult year–is 15 ever easy? We saw them wading in the shallows at the Quincy Potholes the week after my first date. The young man had taken me roller skating and I was still nursing bruises and floor burns. I watched the herons through Daddy’s binoculars. I felt there was a special affinity between me and the birds. Their awkward lift-offs and landings were understandable to me–I knew a lot about being all arms and legs. It was their flight I envied, that clarity, their economy of wingbeat.
Over a year later, in May, I thought my father had forgotten the incident at Moses Lake, but on my 16th birthday he gave me a black and white print, grainy and moody, in very high contrast, on a clear German paper. The photograph was of a young heron poised on the edge of the nest, halfway between awkward and grace. Its wings were outstretched, reaching for air. One foot was already off the mess of sticks that was the nest, the other foot was on tiptoe, elongated like a willow limb. The parent bird was in front, flying, and through a trick of the photographer’s exact timing, was looking back over its shoulder at the fledgling. It was a photograph of precise vision and infinite understanding.