"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, February 12, 2012


When I first spotted the bittern, it was doing what bitterns do best—pretending to be dead grass. He stood with his whole body perpendicular to the water, beak pointed skyward, neck snaking as though windblown. Walt stopped the car and reached for his camera as I kept my eyes glued on the bird. In previous sightings in the exact same location, I've lost him as he melted into the foliage that is both his home and his protection. On this day, it seemed we humans must have blended into the surroundings, because he released his camouflage pose and began to hunt.

He lifted a long leg from the mucky canal water, prepared to move forward.  I was surprised and delighted to see the exact green of spring grasses pushing their way through the dead matting of winter. The contrast with the rest of him couldn't have been stronger: Feathers all shades of brown that matched perfectly both the curling desiccated grass blades and the shadows created by the muddy bank backdrop. Beak an invisible extension of the streaking. Eye like a clear rain drop clinging to a single sere stem.

We watched him eat a frog, poke around looking for more, lift first one glorious green grass leg and then the other as he moved along the bank.

I knew how easy it would have been to miss seeing him at all. Either in his initial camouflaged pose or in the more open hunting presence we enjoyed for such a long time. It was just the smallest of odd movements that caught my eye.

Much like the coyotes we spotted on the same day, or the roughskin newt I almost stepped on during my walk yesterday—designed to blend in, to be inconspicuous, to not be found. But the blending isn't a perfect art. As long as the creature is perfectly still (or perfectly imitating some other motion), it is nearly impossible to spot. But perfect stillness is unsustainable, even though it's the safest way to be. Movement invites death in the form of predators. Movement also brings life in the form of food.

How often do we hold ourselves as still as possible? Or choose to imitate the waving of dead grass? Looking for safety. Reluctant to brave open spaces that offer life and death in the same hand. How many of us die in the safety of last year's grass, becoming that which we only meant to hide within?

I'm pretty sure the bittern, the coyote and the newt are unaware of their camouflage. They act to preserve themselves, but don't hide to avoid pain. They move forward into life, driven by unquestioned forces, accepting what comes, each moment a lifetime lived fully.

Photos by Walt Shucka


Stacy said...

It is hard to freeze forever you are correct. But sometimes that is all we have to give.

Hope you are enjoying the spring like weather.

Wanda said...

If I remain still too long, that also hurts. I enjoy the fruits of your eagle eyes and the pictures you share in your words.

tricia said...

Wow. That is a pretty insightful paragraph as you compare humans to the beings of nature when we try with all our might to blend in, and not make any sudden moves, only to find ourselves near death in our need for protection...

Sally Wessely said...

This post was just the perfect one for me to read after my cold afternoon walk with my husband. On our first part of the walk, I was too cold and afraid of hunching myself up into my coat in order to stay warm. I knew that would bring on neck and shoulder pain, and that a headache would follow. I couldn't seem to stand up straight and walk confidently, head held high, looking down the path rather than right in front of me.

We headed back to the car. Then, I suggested we walk around the lake. I let go of his arm. I stood up tall. I walked faster. He remarked that I was changing my pace in a way that encouraged him.

In my head, I had made a shift. I had as you so brilliantly said, stopped holding myself still. I wasn't looking for safety. I was willing to brave the open spaces. I had not realized how much I was beginning to stay in the safety of last year's grasses.

Thank you, dear friend, for giving us this lesson on life, and fear, and confidence.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I love your power of observation and the insights you draw from nature.

Laura said...

"How many of us die in the safety of last year's grass, becoming that which we only meant to hide within?" Oh Deb, an insightful question, so beautifully expressed...I think we are continually dying...but being born too...sloughing off our own brittle grassy skin, over and over as we rediscover each day who we are...and who we are in the process of becoming. How wonderful to be fully present, awake to the beauty of these creatures that others may have passed right by.

I've missed your exquisite writing. I'm so glad you stopped by today so I would be reminded to return to your lovely space. I've been so busy, please forgive my absence dear one.

Hold my hand: a social worker's blog said...

That's a powerful analogy, Deb. I love it.

You are a fantastic observer, and your reflections are so insightful.


T. Powell Coltrin said...

I had to look up the bittern. Awesome bird.

This made me reflect on how many times I try to blend in when what my spirit wants to do is soar to be seen and heard.

As I get older, others look past me--sometimes through me. They choose to put me in camouflage.

I allow. Not good.


writing and living by Richard P Hughes said...

You could also compare it to writing. Do you want your writing to blend in with other writing or stand out from the crowd. Probably all forward progress was made by writers (and all artists) who wanted to stand out from the crowd.

DJan said...

You are such an artist with words, Deb. I smile with pleasure when I see a Catbird Scout post has popped up in my Reader. Sally said it so well in her comment, too: hiding for awhile might work, but finally we need to rise up and charge ahead! Thank you for this insightful post.

Anonymous said...

I am inspired to walk tall Deb (as tall as one can at 5' 2") and to stop blending into the background where it feels safest. I am suddenly afraid of disappearing ...

Mark Lyons said...

Such a beautiful and insightful portrait of what so many of us do, or have done, in our lives.

Thank you

I love you

kario said...

I love these adventures you have with Walt and the way nature's creatures reveal themselves to you. I am certain that the bittern stopped hiding from you because he sensed that you were a kindred spirit and posed him no harm.

Thank you for your insights. It's true that sometimes it is important to hide, but I think it's just as vital to ask what the purpose is.


Charlene N. K. said...

Powerful, insightful, inspiring and thought-provoking.
Your beautifully expressed illustrations are always a delight to read.

Dee Ready said...

Dear Deb,
With awe at your wisdom, I can say only, "Thank you."


Unknown said...

You are so insightful and brilliant.
And I've never heard of these birds !

Wanda..... said...

Once again, a beautifully written post, Deb.

Katie Gates said...

I love the metaphor here. I feel connected to it and I also think I can learn something from it. I'll need to return to this post again...

Terri Tiffany said...

They act to preserve themselves, but don't hide to avoid pain.

You got me. I think we humans do this so often. I'm just now trying to stop being still.
Lovely analogy.

Barb said...

I've never seen a Bittern - love the stylish green legs! Your post today reminds me of this quote: "The dangers of life are infinite, & safety is among them." Goethe

yaya said...

When you were writing about not moving I, for some reason, thought about movie stars who seem to think that they should be frozen in time. Their looks should never change or move with the years and if they pretend or get much plastic surgery no one will notice that they have aged. Don't know why that popped into my head, but it did!

Nezzy (Cow Patty Surprise) said...

Me...I'm to spastic to hold still very long! Heeehehehe!

I did so love this wonderfully written post sweetie.

It took me a minute or six to fine the bird in that first pic. It truly blends in.

God bless ya and have a beautiful day!!! :o)

colbymarshall said...

Good point about not hiding from pain. We have a lot to learn from animals.

Sandi said...

Hello Deb,
I started to read this post last Sunday then got interrupted I guess, because I didn't finish. When I read your comment on my post I clicked to see if you had added a new one. And, realized I hadn't left a comment when I truly meant to!

I didn't know what a bittern was, but I loved reading your description of his hunt as only you can write it! You have such an incredible gift, I could picture this guy hunting (though he kind of looks like a heron in my version!).

You made me think about stagnation when you mention perfect stillness. It might be considered "safe" but it isn't very sustaining. Yet, there's nothing wrong with being still once in awhile, in order to ponder the majesty of what surrounds us.

love you so much!

graceonline said...

The photograph capture is amazing! What an image. Your writing and the story fill my heart. I take counsel from your words, for not only have I seemed to come to a standstill this winter, but to bury myself, nearly. Then I remember, I am in the womb of the mother, birthing, birthing, birthing.

You remind me not to be afraid, but to welcome the light and the new life.

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