Monday, October 15, 2012

A Heron in the Rain

When I first began to speak about Innermost House in public I had no idea what to say.  The house had come to us so spontaneously that it preceded any words. It was not a project to be designed or a possession to be described but simply the substance of our daily living.  It was the indescribable conclusion to our inexplicable search for Place.

Place, too, was hardly named.  It was the longtime object of our heart’s longing, but who can put a name on it?  It was not this place or that place that bore a name already, but simply “Place.”  Through all the length of our long search I never could explain it.  I still cannot. 

The same is true of the Conversation.  Our talking life was twenty years old by the time we moved to the land, but until we built the house and began receiving guests, it had no name.  It was simply who we were and how we lived. It was our talking way of seeking meaning.  When our guests began to call it "the Conversation," that became its name.

A house, a place, a conversation.  When I look back now I see how much of my coming out has simply been giving names to aspects of the whole and nameless substance of our innermost life.

There is another aspect of our
life my husband and I have shared for many years—our walks together.  Our unusual way of walking no more had a name than any other aspect of our life, but once Innermost House was built our guests gave our walks a name too.  They called them "Being Walks."  

Our Being Walks are
like any other walks we take, but have more the character of my own native purposelessness—the reason why, I think, I am such a hopelessly impractical person.  Everything along the way to everywhere seems to so absorb my attention that it displaces any purpose.

We hold hands or join arms on these walks as we always do, but instead of our accustomed conversation, we walk together in complete silence.  When one of us sees something we wish the other to see, we silently direct the other's attention to it.

And we move very, very slowly.  We look at every little thing along the way—just deeply, steadily look.  After all these years of such walks, when we are silent things very quickly surrender their names.  We do not see oak trees, we do not even see trees; we hardly see leaves but see the veins in the leaves and the pores in the veins.

If we should encounter some manufactured object along the way—a car for instance parked at the roadside—we do not see car, nor fender, nor even paint, but the web of hairline marks in the paint, and the dust in the sunshine.  We do not see color but brightness.  We do not see the colored brightness but the glint of it in the living air.

Julie has spoken of the magnetic effect of the Conversation on sensitive people.  I have many times observed its almost magical influence, but the working of it remains a mystery to me.  It is as if the human soul, once wakened, were urgent for some satisfactory expression in the language of common life.  There is almost an agony of urgency about it that is satisfied in the Conversation.

Now Pam you remind me of our Being Walks with your vivid account of that experience I have known since childhood—the ecstasy of namelessness that lives on the far side of Place, that makes no distinction between Place and Placelessness.

I do not know the how or why of things, but I do have my experience.  And from the first I observed what I can only call a bending of nature around our Being Walks, not so much in people as in animals, and especially in the testimony of the birds.

This is strange, and I beg your pardon for mentioning it.  The strange part is that the silence of those walks seems to exert something like the same magnetism on birds as the Conversation does on certain people.  For a long time I didn't notice it; we were after all only looking at things close at hand.  But I would from time to time become distantly aware of the sound of birds seeming to move from tree to tree overhead.  I supposed it was only that in silence I became more aware of their presence as I was moving.

But then one night years ago, at a time in our lives when our explorations were very especially intense, we took a walk and I felt quite certain the birds were moving with the silence, though I never unsettled my attention to look up.  It was just beginning to rain when we turned the corner toward home and Michael glanced up.  I felt a tug on my arm and looked up too.  

About a block away an enormous bird was flying very low straight toward us. We just stopped and watched as it seemed to
approach so slowly I wondered that it could maintain itself aloft.  Then it drew up and settled right before us in the road, not four feet away.  It just stood there, staring at us.  It seemed as surprised as we were. 

It was a great blue heron, among the largest and shiest birds in
North America. It seemed almost as tall as I am.  The posture of its long pointed head had a look about it I will never forget.  It was something between surprised curiosity and almost a longing, if I may say so, as if it would somehow, in one thrust, pierce the immeasurable distance between our natures.

There are times in everyone’s life when time seems to hold its breath.  Finally a speeding bicyclist rode up and frightened our visitant away.  All he could say as he braked to a stop was, "What in the world was that!"

I have observed since that this magnetic pull of silence—whatever it is—seems to wane and wax with the intensity of our Conversation.  The two seem to intensify each other in a way I never experienced of the silence alone.
  Years later, with the events that culminated in Innermost House, I would learn how powerful that emptiness of silence in between words can be.

I have always seen in the silent way.  I still see the fender of a car giving way to emptiness in the sunlight in the same way I see firelight in the house fall on the surface of a bowl.

But that seeing is my native element—the half I have always had but not the whole I had once before remembering.  I longed for what was missing.  I longed for the perfect unity of the silent seeing with the meaning word.  That unity was regained to me only after years of searching for the meaning of Place in a world of Placelessness.

I behold the mystery of my life.  Being and meaning are in everything.  I think there is no single element of Innermost House, no aspect of its existence, which does not share equally in the quality of Silence and Word—of the seeing and the meaning.


  1. Diana, I love this post and will write more later after I have more of a chance to digest it, but I just had to let you know that the heron/egret is my very favorite bird, so much so that I have had a photo of an egret as my background desktop photo for several months now! This is the picture on my desktop:

    1. Pam, what a beautiful photo. She looks like a ballet dancer.

    2. When I see this picture on my computer desktop I can feel the ocean wind, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the ocean and a sense of airborne freedom that makes my heart open and smile.

  2. For years now, I have recognized that my son's totem is a bird... perhaps a Hawk or Turkey Vulture.. but actually any large, wild hunting bird. Like these birds, my son has demonstrated a keen eye to spot objects in nature. I have often wondered if the fact that I regularly see birds flying ahead of me and alighting on branches is natures way of pointing the way to my son.

    I love that your walks are about silently witnessing the beauty and messages that nature shares. This was a beautiful post.

    1. I was told by an Indian elder that my totem animal was a wolf. Does anyone else know or sense what their totem animal is?

  3. Diana, a big blue heron lives behind our cabin. She has been here through every season of the nine years we've lived in this hollow. Every Spring her mate comes in and she swoops up and down the creek on her giant wings, teaching her babies to fly. When her little family goes away, she winters here and stands almost motionless in the water or in the yard and watches everything I do outside...getting vegetables, gathering wood, hanging the wash. When I walk, she often flies up and down quite near me. I tend to think that she and I have always been here in this Place, that we always will be, with the quiet eye between us; That the two of us are ancient, permanent. I'm glad I'll be able to stay here. What would this dear lady say to me if she could speak? If you have met a heron, Diana, you have made an extraordinary friend. Good for you. And good for our Pam, too. Love, Julie

  4. I once read a book titled "Outside Lies Magic," and I have learned that this is true. I've found that if I sit or walk in silence in a quiet, beautiful place something special - or even mystical - often happens. One day it might be in the way particularly clear sunlight passing through the forest canopy illuminates the forest floor and makes me feel like I can see anything, or it might be a pair of curious ovenbirds stopping by to say goodbye as they prepare for their journey south, or a newborn fawn curled up at my feet that I found by noticing the unusual behavior of her mother. Yes, outside lies magic, if only we would take the time and open our eyes and our hearts.

  5. What a wonderful post. Thank you.

  6. I find it almost haunting that you write of a heron. I am haunted by a great blue heron and I just returned from visiting a pseudo-brother with whom the haunting arose.

    In college in Tallahassee, I did a lot of canoeing through the swamps of the panhandle/Seminole tribes. There is a very little known "slave canal" that was built by one of Napolean's nephews (yes, that one) to connect the Aucilla and Wacissa Rivers--to be navigable to the coast. Me and a buddy tried to canoe it--from the Wacissa--through the slave canal--into the Aucilla--to the coast. We did it.

    Once we entered the canal, which was never navigable because in the swamp you hit limestone at about 16 inches deep so the slaves could not dig deeper and unfortunately, the snakes, mosquitos, and alligators, took their tole on the labor--but water flows.

    It is quiet. Dead swamp quiet. All you hear is the swish of the boat through tannic water. Until your ears adjust. Then the swamp is alive. The your eyes notice that the swamp should be flat and it is not.

    There are obvious mounds. Burial mounds. Then you remember that indeed you are in Seminole burial, sacred ground. In a canal dug by slaves.

    An alligator slips slowly below the waterline like a log in a gentle current. Your canoe will cross that spot soon.

    And then the Great Blue Heron descends a swoosh and is on the bow of my canoe eyeballing me.

    My dull orange canoe against the gunmetal gray-blue of the umbrella bird. We freeze. Paddle in hand the canoe slips slowly down the canal. We bump into a Cypress knee and come to a stop. The Heron steps forward. It leans forward. We are two feet apart. Whoosh, startle it flies and the swoosh gently it paddles its wings down the canal under the Cypress and hanging moss.

    I look around. Three burial mounds are around me. I take up my paddle. Pray a prayer. And paddle.

    1. What an experience, D.B.! -- Did it feel like 'timeless time'? Or perhaps accentuated time! In any case, it was obviously memorable. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Such a beautiful post. Silence became awareness and in the awareness there was the encounter with such a majestic animal as the blue heron. In the awareness birds will follow you, and you will follow them and you will write poetic words to describe your feelings and joy and the birds will carry the words and sing it to you. It's so divine, what else could be there. Yes, I believe there would be my place.

  8. Diana, this is a very moving post. I particularly loved the following comments:

    "my own native purposelessness—the reason why, I think, I am such a hopelessly impractical person. Everything along the way to everywhere seems to so absorb my attention that it displaces any purpose." One could say that this kind of pure 'attention' is the primary purpose for ALL things because in pure attention (and in direct seeing that you so beautifully describe), all is seen as complete in and of itself and TO itself at the deepest level, and therefore practicality (like what do I DO with what I see?) does not even figure into the equation. The seeing is an end in itself. To be a Witness is to step back and just observe without commentary or judgment. Practicality in daily living involves making judgment calls which then involves the mind in a qualitative way. To see directly, one must step out of the logical mind and to impersonally see through the eyes of the heart with an open, nonjudgmental spaciousness that allows all things to be just as they are.

    And then you wrote: "After all these years of such walks, when we are silent things very quickly surrender their names." I have found this to be very true. True Silence is the stillpoint before sound/letters/words arise but which holds the potential for the energy of sound to emerge. This, to me, is what you have been describing when you say "I longed for the perfect unity of the silent seeing with the meaning word." Silence in sound; sound in Silence--both are equal halves of the one Whole. that require the other to exist for their own expression to manifest.

    And to this comment you made: "...when we are silent things very quickly surrender their names." I can only say a big YES! But it's very important, I think, to note that this silence is not the product of the absence of sound but rather the absence of thought. A still mind is like the tabula rasa of a newborn before language steps to order the world into a semblance of coherent meaning. A mind at rest creates creates a limitless feeling of spacious potentiality that holds everything in its field of awareness as a part of itself (and vice versa, feels itself to be an inseparable part of the One.)

    1. I too "suffer" from a native purposelessness. It has only bee n in recent months that I've been able to embrace it as the gift that it is. Thanks!

  9. I just opened this in my email inbox:

    "Exposed to the lucidity of simple awareness, practice dissolves into a practice of no practice (which is not the same thing as abandoning practice) where no one is doing or not doing anything, and natural freedom, no longer yearned for, naturally prevails."

    - Joel Agee, "Not Found, Not Lost"


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