The Creative Non-fiction Corner//

Enchanted by the heron, a decade apart

The first and last book I ever stole from a library was titled something like, Birds: Everything You Need to Know.

I was in grade 4, gearing up for my trip to Bharatpur Sanctuary where we were meant to immerse ourselves in the lives of the creatures that rule the sky. Over a decade later, this trip lives in my heart for many reasons, one of which was my first encounter with it: the Purple Heron.

This meet-cute was not coincidental, but arranged.

On the trip, we were each assigned a bird that inhabited the sanctuary to observe. Mine was an ‘orange-breasted something.’ The frustration of looking for it erased the bird’s name from my memory, but it vaguely resembled a sparrow, at least from an image, since that’s unfortunately all I saw of it.

After being assigned, kid to bird, everyone had three days to follow these birds, record their eating, communicating and nesting habits, and sketch them out to the best of their ability.

Although this sounds exciting in theory, those three days were hell. My orange-sparrow look-alike was nowhere to be found, which in retrospect doesn’t feel like the biggest problem. But to my ten-year-old validation-seeking self, it consumed me.

After telling my teachers that three of five days of the trip had passed and I hadn’t even had the opportunity to begin my assignment, I was rematched with a new species. Happy to accept any bird that actually existed, I took my trusty pencil case and clipboard and marched down to the long, stalky birds that lived by the lake — where we locked eyes for the first time.

Standing majestically about 20 meters from me was the Purple Heron, looking very similar to an egret, with whom I was well acquainted. Enthralled by it and the excitement of finally starting my work (yes, I was that kid), I stared at it for what felt like 30 minutes straight, only briefly looking down at my notebook to make edits to my drawing.

To protect my intellectual property and fend off embarrassment, I will not be sharing this drawing. But to give you a sense of it, it looked like it could’ve been the orange-breasted sparrow clone, which had the audacity to appear in the last hours of the trip, prideful of its ability to hide away until the last moment.

The trip ended and we returned with a bunch of jokes and memories. However, the nerd in me came back with a vengeance-like curiosity, mad at the world for not teaching me more about birds before that week.

I took to reading the stolen book and learning about odd birds like the cassowary (Google at your own risk). At some point, I developed the ability to name a bird starting with each letter. It became my party trick at family gatherings. While my three older siblings talked about biology, mathematics and the Big Bang theory, I surprised my uncle by reciting birds A through Z, often attracting a crowd when I reached the tail end of the alphabet.

As I grew up, birds became normal creatures, sometimes even annoying when the pigeons in the backyard chewed the freshly grown cherry tomatoes. Without much hesitation, I let it happen.

Curiosities about trees, anatomy and running, later evolved into concepts like rights, justice and liberty. Hanging on to inquisitiveness in a world that measured my absolute knowledge of chemistry and economic theories felt childish. But the more I knew, the more I knew — even if it was a tidbit at a party to make someone simultaneously question and admire their choice to talk to me.

Like the orange bird, these facts and feelings of idiosyncrasy were locked away in a box in my brain until finals week this past semester, when I encountered the key again.

While most of finals week was spent in sweatpants at IKB, there was one occasion when I dressed like a normal human after an 8 a.m. final when I reunited with my childhood best friend’s parents who were visiting Vancouver.

I answered the basics about exams going well and eating enough before getting into a long discussion about my career plans. As I explained Plan A, Plan B — and as her dad naturally inquired — Plan C, we walked over to Nitobe Memorial Garden, which I was also visiting for the first time despite having lived here for over two years by then.

It was the loveliest day to be there. The sun was shining bright, the moss greener than ever and the cherry blossoms swaying slightly with the wind. I was delighted with the weather, more so because I was showing loved ones around. I needed campus to be at its best and not embarrass me.

Standing tall right by the bridge, there it was: the Heron, this time a Great Blue one. So unaware of its poise, it had attracted the entire crowd to it.

Once again, I was engrossed by it. But this time, the heron was accompanied by the idea that over a decade had passed, and I hadn’t thought about herons, read about herons or seen one. What a shame. The moment was made much more nostalgic by pieces of my childhood being there to witness it, almost all equally charmed.

The day ended up being a perfect break from my cyclical finals routine. But it also brought a sense of grief and annoyance; this time, not at one kind of bird not found, but at birds as a whole being gone — vanishing into thin air where they coexist and with it, the idea of child-like passions.

Seeing the Heron resembled that child-like curiosity, catching me off-guard years later, evoking the same feeling in me — the want to learn more, to pay more attention to the world and nature and to honour it. Maybe I’ll make that Plan A — I don’t think that’ll fly with my friend’s dad, though.