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A Friend

A Friend


Amidst political cacophony it is particularly important to still the mind and open oneself to beauty and the interconnected strands of life around us. I had such an experience this week.

Among my daily mountain bike rides, several each week pause at a small waterfall. The waterfall is not steep or high and decidedly mundane, particularly in that it is man-engineered. Nonetheless, I step down the rocks and sit on a block of granite, just a dozen feet from the swirling pool at the fall’s base. In a  sub-urban high desert, it is a slight refuge to be sure. But an intentional focus of perspective and silencing of the extraneous lends the place a sense of magic, not entirely distant from the experience of a “real” waterfall in the remote Rocky or Adirondack Mountains.

Last fall I had a first sighting of a Great Blue Heron, fishing in the gentle swirl. Through the autumn months, the sightings became more frequent. I know too little to identify gender with certainty, but her size suggested female. I watched her and she watched me. If I crossed an invisible line, she would fly. That space between us narrowed over the weeks. I began talking to her, gently, whenever our visits coincided.

In June, to my surprised delight, she was there again. I can’t know that it is the same bird, but the narrowed space between us quickly returned to what had been earned in the fall. I felt a connection to her, although I am realistic enough to understand this as a form of anthropomorphic romanticism. Of course, my romanticism is not anthropomorphic. My sense of connection is real, but the projection of reciprocity is perhaps a bit fantastic. Or is it?

When I leave home, I’ve come to telling my wife that I hope to see my “friend” on the ride. If so, I usually take a photo and send it to her before remounting.

On a recent hot Wednesday, I rode down the gravel Coal Creek Trail, approaching the bridge over the creek, where I turn to my rocky perch. Perhaps 200 yards before the bridge, I saw a large bird in my peripheral vision, coming hard from my right. She flew directly in front of me, at head height and no more than 5 or 6 feet away. I could nearly touch her.

I expected that she had been startled by something else and was fleeing our usual meeting place. But she was not fleeing. As she passed by, she elevated into a soaring arc, turning back toward the waterfall and disappearing behind the weeds and reeds on the creek’s banks.

I rushed ahead to my turn beyond the bridge and immediately saw her, tall and still on the rocky ledge. She saw me too, and we both settled into our simple ritual, I gently talking and she periodically thrusting her beak into the foam, emerging with a small silver fish, flashing in the hot sun.

It is, I suppose, a bit dramatic to posit that she intentionally crossed my path and circled immediately to that spot, expecting me to follow. But it is not impossible either. I had never before had a large bird fly directly across my field of vision, nearly close enough to touch. No one or anything else was nearby. It may not have been intentional in the way I posit, but it was no accident either.

I am not expert in the study of interplay between species, but there is more than ample evidence to suggest that the kind of kinship I feel with a Great Blue Heron is not entirely imaginary.

And to an extent, it really doesn’t matter. In those moments, she and I are together in that space, familiar and safe. That alone is enough.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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