Great Blue Herons of Richland County in Time and Timelessness

Generally speaking, if you were to read an essay about the Great Blue Heron, it would be shelved under “Natural History” and not so much under “Local History.”  This essay however, takes a broader perspective of herons through time and culture, through mythology and meaning; through art and iconography in Richland County.  So good luck finding a shelf for that.

It is not a stretch to put herons in a history column, because they seem like a living embodiment of the past.

Herons represent that jarring element of inscrutable evolution wherein birds are the last remnants of the age of dinosaurs; they have slipped through the cracks of our timeline so that the ancient world can remain vital in the present.  You could probably say that of many species, but there is something about the heron that has retained its primordial essence: when you see one today it is like you are experiencing a moment thousands of years ago.

They are a touchstone of pre-history, a kind of symbolic portal of time travel.  And, interestingly enough, when the Lenape people lived in Richland County in the 1700s, the word they used for the great blue heron was the same word in their language that also meant “bridge.” Built into their very vocabulary was this idea of the heron in two worlds at once: heron was the one who could bridge not only from shores to shore of riverbeds; but serve as well as a bridge between the water-world and the sky world.

There was a Heron Dance they had which acted out in drums and feathers the concept that the heron—lifting from muddy lake bed to the tops of tall trees—was the way in which prayers might be sent heavenward to the Great Spirit.

The Ancient Ones

I am not the only one intrigued by the great blue heron—there is historical precedence for this fascination on our part of the Earth. 

The tribal culture of the Erie people, who lived in this part of North America just before the arrival of European settlers, certainly held the heron in some special ceremonial regard, as indicated by the number of heron-shaped ceremonial smoking pipes they left behind as evidence; this one found just north of here in Huron county.

Three tobacco pipes were discovered between 1877 and 1907 in sites believed to belong to Erie tribespeople in Huron County. No one knows how long ago in prehistoric ages the Erie lived around the southern Shore of Lake Erie, but the end of their life here is well documented to the middle 17th century when the tribe was entirely decimated by warring Iroquois. This heron pipe was photographed in 1907, though its whereabouts today are unknown.

Still farther back on the timeline were the tribal folks known to us today as the Hopewell, whose society from 200 BC to 500 AD produced heron artworks like this elegantly crafted pipe.

This particular heron effigy pipe, discovered about 100 miles south of Richland County, is a perfect example of the heron motif developed by Hopewell artists. Other similar heron carvings, rendered in black, gray and red stone, have been discovered throughout the Hopewell homelands, though none have turned up here yet.

The Adena culture of paleo tribes, in our area as far back as 800 BC, left behind carved tablets of stone and clay with intricate designs of stylized wings, feathers, avian heads and talons, which some paleoanthropologists suggest may well represent a sacred heron figure from their mythology.

No one knows exactly what the famous Adena Tablets meant to the people who made them around 2,200 years ago, but some of them have indications that the abstract designs were used as printing plates to transfer the image to cloth or skin. The images have been subject to a wide variety of interpretations that include the depiction of a Heron creation myth.
These artifacts have been named for the places in Ohio where they were found: (clockwise) Berlin tablet; Gaitskill clay tablet; Wilmington tablet; Cincinnati tablet.

Many historic cultures from around the globe, and from prehistoric tribal people of North America, have a heron character in their creation myths.  As a mystic creature that could bridge between the human world and the spirit world, the heron was called a “feathered spirit of the Above World,” who brought the earth into existence from the dark by flying low over the waters at dawn and breaking the surface with its talons.

In American Indian religious practice, the use of smoke to give ascendance to one’s prayers, in lifting them heavenward, is echoed in the sense that the heron can similarly elevate spiritual energy upward to the Great Spirit by flying to its nest in the tops of trees.

Probably farthest back into our local history is a heron relic carved into a bedrock outcropping that dates to a time so long ago, it was discovered underneath six feet of dirt.  How many centuries of seasons does it take to build up six feet of soil over exposed rock?  That’s how long ago there were people in the Clear Fork River valley between Bellville and Butler whose sacred regard for the heron compelled them to etch its iconic image into stone in defiance of time.

Uncovered in 1960 with a backhoe, the “Heron Stone” was part of a rock ledge buried in a hill on Ramsey Road between Bellville and Butler off State Route 95. Photographed by historian D.W. Garber is Albert Hitchman, whose accidental discovery was the only petroglyph found at that time between Lake Erie and the Ohio River.

Nineteenth Century

The concept of dressing up in heron feathers was certainly not limited to pre-historic tribal ceremonial dances: it extended well into the 19th century in Richland County and America.

The population of Great Blue Herons actually dropped precipitously in the US in the 1800s, and it wasn’t a bird flu that killed them off … that was the era when herons became hats.

During the decades of history from approximately 1880 to 1920, the styling of women’s hats required milliners to part untold millions of birds from their feathers…including the great blue heron, whose broad range of feathering—from hackles to down—was found on classy headgear of all dimensions.

Twentieth Century

Heron iconography in the Clear Fork River valley extended well into the 20th century when the image of a Great Blue Heron was painted onto a Marion Avenue barn in 1976.  The site was near the shores of the Clear Fork Lake, where the road made a sharp right-angle curve so that traffic had to slow down and consider the scene of a heron taking flight.

Today, the barn is long gone, and even the sharp curve of the road has been eliminated.

When I interviewed the young artist who painted the Great Blue Heron mural on Marion Avenue Road in 1976, he told me that studies for the design were made on Clear Fork Lake (in the background), by chasing herons around in a small motorboat to watch them land and take off. 

He said the herons didn’t mind. 

When asked whether the artist’s evaluation of avian sensibilities was true, Clear Fork herons responded “Crawk.”  (Translation: “What a crawk.”)

A Natural History Footnote:

Watching the Great Blue Heron is an exercise in patience, they seem so zen: standing there rapt in serene contemplation.  No extraneous chirping and flitting about.  If you approach them they don’t complain, they just go away like non-violent activists.

This is not to say they cannot stand up for themselves.  I knew a science teacher at Malabar High School who had a great deal of experience researching the nesting grounds of Great Blue Herons, and he had plenty of not-so-non-violent war stories.  He assured me that if you get too close to their little hatchling herons, they have a defensive technique that is offensive enough to guarantee you will keep your distance.

As soon as they decide you have crossed the line, a heron will launch into flight by a trajectory that takes them directly over your head; and with the scientific precision of a trained bombardier, they will unleash upon you all of the slimy excrement stored in their surprisingly voluminous bowels.

According to the science teacher, heron waste—number 1 and number 2—is among the nastiest, smelliest, most horrifyingly nauseating substances on the planet, especially in your face, your hair, your hat, your coat, or anywhere within arm’s length of your person.

Heron’s defense, he says, is pinpoint precision in projectile pooping.

Homage a Heron

The Great Blue Heron’s nobility is in its simplicity—not exactly graceful all the time—yet simple in design: when standing still in the marsh, a heron looks organic as a piece of driftwood—water and wind-sculpted to its essential lines, like a stray fallen limb of a tree emerging from the water.

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