Wagoner’s “The Heart of the Forest”

I’ve been reading David Wagoner for an awful long time, ever since I was in his class my freshman year in college. Though I haven’t purchased all 18 of his books of poetry, I’ve certainly purchased most of them. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed in any of the purchases, but the more I’ve read, the less I’ve been surprised by what I’ve read, something I definitely look for in poetry.

Though he’s originally from Indiana, I consider him the premier Northwest Poetry, particularly when it comes to nature poetry. Naturally I had to buy A Map of the Night,
his latest, on my last visit to the UW Bookstore. My favorite poems, once again, are those describing places I’m familiar with, place like


You pretend to look for wildflowers, but what you’re doing
is trying to find traces of where your feet
lost their sense of direction in the woods.

You can name the trees and what’s staying alive
under them, but you’re afraid this may be a time
when you find the ghost-pale, skinned corpses of beavers

or the green antlers still on the skulls of elk,
or the leaflike, feather-light wings of owls suspended
upside down on spikes among living branches,

so you rehearse remembering the place
where one of your clumsy feet once found itself
secure, where it lifted you and moved you,

where you breathed again and saw, in the near-darkness
of the forest floor, a fir tree fallen and broken
into nurse logs, out of whose rotten, moss-covered sides,

among small spillways of lilies of the valley,
dozens of other selves were growing, rooted
all the way through into another forest

where nothing comes to an end, where nothing is lost,
and lying down with one ear to the ground,
you listened to its heart and yours still beating.

I doubt I would have appreciated this poem as much ten or twenty years ago as I do now, though I’ve been awed by nurse logs since the very first time I’ve seen them, and certainly since I first discovered them in the Olympic Rainforest. It’s hard to imagine anything more alive than a Rainforest, or a better symbol of future generations building on the foundations of previous generations than a nurse log.

At this stage in my life, knowing life doesn’t last forever, and not too worried about that, I can only hope that “nothing comes to an end, where nothing is lost” and that I have somehow managed to help build a better world for my children, grandchildren, and future generations.

Of couse, since my favorite charities in the last 40 years have been The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, etc., it should be obvious that I believe the future of the human race depends on the future of Nature.

Like Wagoner (not to mention Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman,and Roethke) Nature is “where one of your clumsy feet once found itself/ secure, where it lifted you and moved you.”

Pleasant Surprises

It’s the birds I expect to find at Malheur that draw me back there, but unexpected birds bring the greatest delight.

I’ve seen several Northern Shrikes in Western Washington, but never managed to get a picture of one before, so I was delighted when I saw this one perched beside the road and even willing to pose after I got out:

Northern Shrike

I’ve seen California Quail in a number of places, particularly in California, but I’ve never gotten one to pose like this one did, standing watch over his family:

California Quail

And, as on the last trip to Malheur, I even managed to scare up a pheasant,

Ring-Necked Pheasant

always a delightful, explosive moment.

Juvenile Black-Crowned Night-Heron

I don’t consider myself a great birder, but I’ve birded long enough that I usually know when I see a bird that I’ve never seen before. So, when this bird flew past and landed

juvenile Black-Crowned Night-Heron

just a short ways away from me, I was sure it was a new bird for me. I was still convinced when I managed to get this shot

juvenile Black-Crowned Night-Heron

a little later. In fact, it wasn’t until another birder identified it that I realized it wasn’t a new species at all. In fact, I could even begin to see that it did resemble

Black-Crowned Night-Heron

the Black-Crowned Night-Heron that I shot in Santa Rosa a year ago, though I still find the difference rather shocking. It probably didn’t help that I had never seen one fly before since the two I saw in Santa Rosa sat frozen the whole time I was there.

The coloring of the juvenile provides much better camouflage than that of the adult which would make it safer for the young bird and easier to survive predation, but I have to wonder why it ever changes color,

Black-Crowned Night-Heron

particularly since it’s quite similar in color to an American Bittern.

Great Egret

I didn’t go to Malheur expecting to see Great Egrets as I did for Black-Necked Stints, Pelicans, or Ibis, but I wasn’t surprised to see them, either. Although we don’t get many this far north, I do see them quite often in late summer and they’re fairly common in Ridgefield. They’re rare enough, though, that I haven’t compartmentalized them yet.

In other words, I don’t know them well enough to know what a “typical” pose is, which, in some ways, is a good thing, just as seeing anything with “fresh eyes” can be a good thing. I originally favored this pose, perhaps because it reminds me of the hunting pose of a Great Blue Heron.

Great Egret Poised

Leslie liked this pose because it reminded her of images of Brontosaurus feeding,

Great Egret with Outstretched Neck

and I certainly concur that there is something timeless in this bird.

Of course, the beautiful feathers remind me of a fan dancer, slowly revealing their beauty so I enjoy watching egrets preen.

Great Egret Preening

But my favorite shot is still of an Egret taking off, the moment when you can best see those magnificent wings fully spread.

Great Egret Taking Off