by Teresa H. Janssen
This last summer I camped for several days on the Strait of Juan de Fuca that cuts in from the Pacific to form a natural border between Canada and the northwest coast of the United States. Around sunset I sat on a bench on a cliff overlooking the water. Off shore, a lone blue heron stood on a piece of driftwood floating amid a cluster of kelp. I watched as the bird balanced on its long spindly legs while gracefully riding the swells. It stood there for more than an hour, occasionally dipping its beak to pull nourishment from the sea. I was taken by the creature–its harmony with its environment, its perseverance and tranquility.
It brought to mind a work of art I once saw and have been unable to forget. It was of a heron giving advice to a king.
In Solomon Takes Advice from the Animals, a late-sixteenth century painting by Dhanu in The Lights of Canopus Folio (Chester Beatty Museum, Dublin), King Solomon is on his throne, surrounded by animals. Respected for his wisdom, the king was also known for his ability to speak with all creatures. Gathered in his court are over two dozen mammals (elephant, camel, leopard, deer, rabbit, squirrel and others) and over thirty birds.
The painting, rendered in Agra, India, illustrates a reworking of the Kalila and Dimna animal fables by Kashifi, a highly regarded Persian teacher and scholar. In the story, Solomon has been given the opportunity to drink the water of life, which will allow him to live forever. He decides to first seek counsel. In the painting, Solomon kneels and faces the assembly of animals, turning his back to his human attendants. He listens as the birds and mammals debate the consequences of such an act.
Heron perches on the head of the lion, king of the animal world, and leans closest to Solomon. Impervious to the chatter of others, heron tells Solomon that there is only enough water for one person to drink. If the king drinks it, he will outlive everyone that he loves. Solomon listens and refrains.
In reading a translation of Kalila and Dimna, considered a masterpiece of Arabic and world literature, I recalled how often fables and folktales employ animals to illustrate lessons and adages to humans. Kalila and Dimna are jackals that tackle many subjects, including the relationship between a ruler and his people and the sage use of dominion. I pause in my reading to ponder how we’ve forgotten the old stories and have disregarded the intelligence of the sentient beings we share the earth with.
That evening on the Strait, as I watched the heron stand serenely on an unsettled sea, I realized that of all the animals, none is better-suited to counsel reflection and restraint. It is heron that reminds we humans, even a wise king, to tread lightly on the earth, take no more than we need, consider the long-term consequences of an impulsive act, to put love for others before the self-gratifying pursuit of power. Heron waits for our attention.
Teresa H. Janssen’s nonfiction has been designated a notable in The Best American Essays and has received the Norman Mailer/NCTE nonfiction award. Her essays have appeared in Zyzzyva, Parabola, Critical Read, Emrys, Catamaran, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, The Ways of Water, is forthcoming in 2023 from She Writes Press.