Feet that Go Down In the Mud, Where the Truth Is

Thirty-two years ago, in 1986, Mike Houck convinced then-mayor Bud Clark to declare the great blue heron (GBH) Portland’s official city bird. Each year in early June the Portland Audubon Society and Urban Greenspaces Institute host a series of outings to explore the heron’s haunts and deepen our connection to this place.

Oregon poet laureate William Stafford explained it best in his ‘Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron’ poem (originally written to commemorate the 1986 declaration):

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

The history of Portland’s stewardship of the heron’s habitat isn’t all pretty. At one point there were plans to fill Oaks Bottom, and much of Ross Island has been mined off to build downtown skyscrapers. If it really is a test, we’d be like the kid who spends most of the school term misbehaving and neglecting his studies, only to turn it on in the final week and score high marks on the final. But it isn’t the final yet and we still have more work to do. Important work remains undone.

The herons, and the hardscrabble types who work to safeguard and celebrate their habitat have a fierce determination. They subsist on meager fare: the scraps left over that were deemed useless by city boosters and developers of the not-too-distant past.

But those scraps aren’t worthless today. Through hard work by community members and ecosystem self-renewal, those scraps have blossomed into some of the region’s finest natural areas and parks. And another generation of scrappy community groups is working to re-green the paved over places and win back an interconnected network of parks and natural areas – for the heron and for all the other critters (including us). Join us in this important work!