Kirk Klasson

Blue Heron

Blue Heron


Kirk M. Klasson

Some say the view from the Vistas is the best in Richmond, after all, that’s how it got its name. Located on a spit of land between the Kanawha Canal and the James River it stands like an improbable guard looming above the turning basin, a tiny park and shallow cul du sac that’s home to the Maggie Walker and the Martha Jefferson, fanciful tourist renditions of the once hard working packet boats that made their living on the canal. Here, perched on a brick pedestal, in a glass encased tower, lives an entire urban community. You wouldn’t recognize it as such and residents wouldn’t call it such but if you spread out the Vistas into the traditional attached, two story dwellings that make up most of residential Richmond it would be like any other neighborhood with a name all its own ending in Hill or Ward or Row.

From just about any floor of the Vistas the view goes on without interruption. Looking south, the Mayo bridge spans the James, straddling the big island in the falls, becoming a singular point of perspective, guiding the eye past the silos of the Southern States cement plant, past Manchester’s empty factories, past Petersburg and deep into the land that still longs to be forgotten. To the east, beyond the knotted roads and rail crossings, the canal slips through the flood wall along Tobacco Row and rejoins the James at the tidewater, just before Gillies Creek where Church Hill keeps watch but, as always been its custom, never mentions what it sees.

To the north past the Downtown expressway the city comes into view as 14th street moves up the flank of Shockoe Hill to join Broad Street just past the Monroe building and the ever-growing VCU hospital complex that surrounds and shrouds the old home of the confederacy. Slightly to the west stands City Hall with its observation deck peering from its farcical boater hat roof at the white portico of the Capital Building. A bit further, huddled in conspiracy around the James Center, are the glass and metal towers of the legal and banking concerns at the center of the city’s economy, shrines to local moneyed interests, they glance back at the turning basin in solemn anticipation of some overdue acknowledgement that never comes.

Due west, the expressway disappears through a gap in the skyline, tunneling beneath Kanawha Park, then the city briefly resumes with the inscrutable Federal Reserve building looking over the chevroned shoulders of the Riverside Plaza Towers. In the space between the Plaza and the Troutman Building, a path created by the Haxall branch of the canal, the octagonal chimney of the old Virginia hydro plant rises like a monument to the gilded age it once served. Standing more than 200 feet tall the chimney aligns with the Carillion Tower, some three miles distant, to form the twin sights of an enormous dioptra, pointing the way west and memorializing the promise of the canal.

Nearest the Vistas looking west, just inside the floodwall, stands the remnants of an old factory complex, recently shuttered and closed, parts of which still span the canal and conceal its original foundations. Along the inside of the floodwall stand giant power poles whose slender arms bear cables that run back to the Brown’s Island station immediately adjacent to the Haxhall canal. Beyond the floodwall the CSX railroad viaduct, an engineering marvel, straight as a string and a good 50 feet above the north bank of the James, marks the southern boundary and the end of the city, just as surely and abruptly as the reign of rail marked the end of the canal.

The rest of the view belongs to the James. Rounding Belle Isle through the Hollywood Falls, it consumes the remaining distance, an inexorable thundering flood, indifferent to designs meant to cross it, dismissive of contrivances meant contain it, astonishing and diminishing all that come near, the city of Richmond included.

The islands that mark the beginning of the falls are as much the Vistas neighbors as the surrounding factories and office towers. Depending on the time of year they even support their own indigenous communities whose arrival and departure coincide with the seasons of the river. Two of the islands, Vauxhaul and Devil’s Kitchen, are easily reached by trespassing on the southbound Norfolk Southern trestle and it is rumored that indigents, or free spirits or those of diminished capacity, occupy these islands for the better part of the year, at least the warmer parts of the year when the James doesn’t constitute an immediate threat of flooding.

In the summer at night with the James at its yearly ebb, you can see the fires of permanent fishing camps dotting these islands and hear voices carry above the muted tide of the river and the hum of the expressway. It’s not unusual to hear arguments break out at night as many of the residents take to drinking and bickering. Back when the worst occurred, the population on the islands began to strain, and the arguments sometimes grew violent and injuries would occasionally ensue and the police would have to make their way over the trestle to pull some poor soul over to the VCU medical center. It was about this time that make shift camps would appear beneath the expressway and under the factory that spanned the canal. There are few if any arrests that result from these incidents as the residents maintained a strict code of silence, the only rent that’s due out on the islands. Since none of the homeless or luckless that stay out on the islands can actually make a living there, at some point they come back across the trestle through an opening in the flood wall to the Vistas’ back yard and from there to local churches, charitable facilities or other occupations.

The two other islands are Shad and Bailey’s. Shad, situated closer to the southern bank of the James, is generally lower in profile and easily flooded so apart from the occasional wayward kayaker remains largely undisturbed. Bailey’s, however, is unique. Up until recently the island while difficult but not impossible to reach, was abandoned. In fact, it was so bereft of thought that no one could even remember how it came by its name. Somewhat almond shaped it slopes steeply up from the water line to a thick clump of tall trees that offers little in the way of anything suitable for habitation or recreation. It is also protected on the north by one of the river’s steeper drops, making for some of the most exhilarating rapids in the falls but nothing you would want to casually try to cross. But whether it be the shape or the trees or the protection afforded by the James, several years ago, quite unexpectedly, Bailey’s became the home of a blue heron rookery and a attraction to locals and visitors alike.

Beginning in February, around Valentines Day, the male birds arrive to lay claim to the remnants of last year’s nests, sparse platforms in the very tops of still leafless trees. And they wait, occasionally antagonizing each other but doing little else, no mending or repair, no hunting, no fishing, no movement whatsoever, solemn gray statues fixed in anticipation. About a week later the females arrive, inciting a riot of courtship; they circle, then light, then leave, then circle and light again, urgently mulling their choices. By the end of the day the issue is decided and the island quickly gets down to the business at hand, with the pairing complete, repairs commence and the fasting imposed by courtship ends.

Anyone familiar with these birds, long legs, long necks, long beaks, enormous wings deceptively folded into a compact frame, knows how they were meant to hunt. Keeping to the shallows, they barely move, every step deliberate, every stance calculated to deceive what waits below, so invested in stealth that they sometimes think themselves invisible, even to passing humans. They bide their time, patiently stalking the reeds, only striking when certain of success. It’s an effective technique but one that only works under the right conditions. By March, with the Blue Ridge melting out, the James is at its deepest and fastest, there are no shallows in the falls, the bedrock and boulders that make up the rapids are deeply submerged beneath dangerously quick water and even the osprey, unable to judge where they might end up, won’t risk a dive into the river. So surrounded by water but unable to hunt in it, the heron leave the James, take to the air, and traveling northeast, directly past the Vistas and over 14th street, shoot the gap between the VDOT and Monroe buildings, and vanish in the distance in search of friendly water.

Getting off the James and through the city can be treacherous. Conditions permitting, the birds spring from their nests, negotiate the CSX trestle and in a hard climb of a half dozen strokes clear the power lines inside the flood wall. Occasionally they take a longer route first heading south or west over the James before turning north and with a running start fly straight into the heart of the city. Even then the flight’s not always easy. Carrying greater speed, some birds get confused by the buildings at the James Center and circle as if caught in a roundabout exiting randomly through the gap at Kanawha Park or drifting down the expressway towards the tidewater. But most regain their bearings and beat a course straight over 14th street. Somewhere well past the Monroe building, moving at an even cadence, they disappear, only to return several hours later to the same spot, through the same gap, gliding in a slow measured descent back home.

It’s a strange path to take since there’s no obvious body of water that lies northeast of Richmond, no sheltered ponds and not much of anything that could feed a rookery the size of Bailey’s. That is unless you considered the miles of wetlands just below Mechanicsville that later in the year recede to reveal the Chickahominy. This far north the Chickahominy is more of a meandering swamp than a bonafide river, it secrets in bottoms and abandoned river loops barely deep enough for a boat, let alone mention on a map, and it keeps that way for miles, reappearing above Providence Forge as something akin to a river. But the Chickahominy is a good six miles from the James, further if you crave the desolation that provides no trace of man, a long way to go to fetch a meal. But whatever their destination, early every morning the trek northeast begins, by twos and threes they leave the rookery and once above the power lines their path would graze the Vistas and standing merely feet away you can feel their wings work the air and look straight into their lidless yellow eyes.

With summer approaching, as the morning sun clears Church Hill, the shadow of the Vistas falls on Bailey’s Island and in the gloom the trees begin to stir. It was about this time, down at the edge of the turning basin, in the tiny park still lit by antique lamps, that a figure appeared, motionless, barely distinguishable from the bench it was sitting on. Hunched slightly forward, elbows resting on knees, hands folded, gaze fixed a few yards distant, remaining that way for hours. It’s not unusual to see folks at the turning basin, day or night, it’s a convenient place to wait for an appointment or keep one with yourself if only for a few minutes each day. What was unique about this visitor is that he returned everyday to the same bench at the same time, sometimes with a small bag that he kept at his feet, sometimes empty handed, always arriving in the dark, sitting without moving until about mid morning and departing just before the tourist boats arrived.

It seemed clear he had no other place to be and no other company that he preferred to keep. Weeks went by and he was still there. After a while it almost seemed that there was some ritual to his routine, that waiting in this spot and for this time was a kind of a consolation, a comfort of sorts. Or it could be that for want of useful occupation pride insists you find another place to be, somewhere where you can’t be recognized, somewhere as a stranger you could hide in plain sight, cloaked in anonymity. Or maybe like the birds he thought that by remaining perfectly still he could render himself invisible, a scattered broken shadow, a figment jostled on a rippled surface, indistinguishable from its surroundings. But as to why he waited there and where he went each day, unlike the birds whose destination would remain untold, the waiter’s story might yet be discovered, the whys and wherefores sorted out, understood and reconciled.

Creating an encounter wouldn’t be an issue, the bench next to his was always empty, however making any appearance at all, especially at that hour, would certainly be conspicuous. From a distance he seemed to be one of many who end up living on the street, emerging from the islands or beneath the expressway, passing apparitions, the very people you become accustomed not to look at or to speak to. But there was something in his appearance, if nothing more than just his punctuality, that didn’t make that seem likely. Besides it was doubtful he crossed over from the islands in the dark where the space between the ties was the river far below. And the camps beneath the expressway were never occupied for more than just a night or two. What was certain was that he would be there. The problem wasn’t when to arrive or where to sit but rather what to say to a passing apparition that you’ve practiced so hard and for so long not to see.

Just before the boats arrived I took a seat. He didn’t move, he didn’t shift, his gaze remained fixed somewhere distant, it was almost like I wasn’t there and yet finally, a mere few feet away, he was. He wasn’t weathered, his eyes were clear, his frame compact and lean, his hands powerful and chafed from occupation. He wore a kind of uniform in a work related way, a baseball cap that bore no affiliation, a blue shirt that appeared like his trousers to have been recently pressed and thick soled shoes that belonged in a warehouse or factory. Beneath the bench was a small, two handled bag, hardy enough room to keep a coat let alone to keep a life in. But there were no signs of street life, no cardboard placards, no obvious trace of need. In all, he seemed like a dozen strangers you might pass on the street everyday with no intention to acknowledge or engage. So what is he doing there?

Before the thoughts could assemble the words a giant shadow in the outline of a great sea monster quickly passed between our benches.

We both looked up.

There, well above the power lines, a giant heron was turning in a tight clockwise circle, gaining altitude with every circle he completed, moving only the very ends of his enormous wings, spiraling up and up and up. We watched, rapt in the command this giant had of the air. Anyone who watched these birds would know this was not unusual, it wasn’t a technique unique to a single bird, if one started turning, chances are at some point that day the rest would do the same.

And without a second thought or any further hesitation it came out.

Wonder why they do that?”

There was no reply. Perhaps this wasn’t enough to merit a comment or begin a conversation but then without taking his eyes off the bird the he began to explain.

It’s the wind up there, it’s from the southwest and moving north along a front. For the birds to head north they need to clear the city and a wind that fast behind them won’t give them any lift. They need to first fly into the wind to gain enough altitude to clear the city. Once he’s high enough, he’ll turn north and be gone.”

And just like that the heron broke off his circle, laid flat against the following breeze, tucked back its head and vanished over the expressway. No sooner had the bird disappeared than he reached below his bench, collected his bag, stood up, and without another word, took the steps to 14th street and like the bird was gone.

It’s curious how much of what we do is given to us by the season we are in, not just the time but the circumstances that surround it, the ebb and flow of moments that afford us certain opportunities but make distant and difficult others. Like the birds that for a few months make their home in the James but spend hours traveling miles to places never seen to ensure the success of their brood.

As he predicted, that night a cold front brought the first of the violent storms that mark the beginning of Richmond’s summer.

Perhaps the conversation spooked him. It’s rumored that the folks in the fishing camps cherish their anonymity, many are only known to each other, local charities and the authorities by their nicknames. They have no past to speak of and no way, at least by name, to inquire of it. Many prefer it that way. A stranger’s curiosity could be more than suspicious and possibly down right dangerous. Others simply belong to the past. They lost their way as events moved on but they did not. Discharged from a service for want of the need. Let go from a job that came to an end. Caught in a circumstance without the means to leave. Like the canal that once had its moment back when they remembered how Bailey’s Island got its name. Back when for a while flat bottom boats floated 80 feet into the air on slender ribbons of water and trafficked in the center of a vibrant city, exactly in the same place where the business district stands today. Or what transpired was merely coincidental, after two months on the bench by the turning basin, events presented another course, a different opportunity, a new moment to replace one that had already lasted much too long.

But, whatever the reason, he never returned.

By the end of May, the young nearly as large as their parents, the heronry empties out just in time for Richmond’s summer to commence in earnest. The river around the falls quickly ebbs, sometimes standing still in shallow pools suffering in the heat and only bothering to move with the next big rain. Occasionally, a stray bird will return but without the noise and commotion the island seems strange and unfamiliar so the visits are always short. And without the birds the view is not nearly as inviting. And for the next several months the sky remains empty and uneventful. But then late September comes and the sun begins to recline and as if on queue starlings gather by the thousands on the hat that tops city hall and listening to the music of the setting sun, swarm in schools above the Capital Building and tango in the fading autumn sky.


Copyright©2013 Kirk M. Klasson

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