This is how a sentence concerning the climactic moment in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” begins. A child of eight or so, living on a small farm in the woods with her grandmother, meets a young ornithologist who has seen a white heron flying nearby. He invites her to be his guide as he finds, and kills, specimen birds (this was the method of nineteenth-century ornithologists, including the great Audubon: kill, stuff, mount, and either exhibit or draw for the edification of others); he also asks her if she knows where the heron nests. Flattered and warmed by his attention, she decides to locate the nest and then lead him to it, her gift to him; but once she has climbed up a huge pine tree at daybreak and seen the sea in the distance and the heron and his mate nesting nearby, she realizes she could never bear to bring about the heron’s death, and so she says nothing. The ornithologist, disappointed, goes on his way; and young Sylvie, who has been more or less alone before, is now lonely. The narrator implores the woods and creatures Sylvie has protected to sustain her in their turn.
This small story is quietly beautiful and hugely moving.
Evidently not everybody gets it, though; or else this student of mine made a disastrous word choice, because she wrote
“Once she saw how the heron begins its day, and where the nest is, she realized that this is not worth telling to anyone.”
In other words, my student is saying “Who cares where the nest is, anyway?”
I hope what she meant was that the child realized her pride and pleasure in telling this to the young man would not be worth the bird’s life. That’s what I would have written. Surely Sylvie’s adventure—the arduous climb up the tall pine, her amazement at seeing the sea for the first time, her silent communion with the bird as he floats to his nest, wide white wings against the dark green of the forest—cannot end in a big shrug.
Let’s say, anyway, that my student struggled, and failed, to express a truth; I’d rather think that than believe she so utterly missed the point.
This post is for all of us, but especially for my sister Susan.