Black Heron

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

“With evil people neither stay nor go;
The heron died for being with the crow.”
Proverbial

We are obsessed with the problem of meaning. Things, phenomena (for instance, black herons – bear with me) must always mean something.

Someone mentioned Paul de Man to me over dinner last night (not a common occurrence, I should point out), in the context of his worrying about our obsession with meaning. The thirst for meaning in an object (in a poem, say), obliterates our sense of the poetics of that object. Thus literature always seems to need explaining, where we should perhaps start by according it an explanatory power of its own.

Indigestible stuff, I think you will agree. But it put me in mind of herons, the spate of black heron graffiti, to be precise, which has erupted around Cambridge. If you keep your eyes open, you will see black (and occasionally white) herons in silhouette, and in various poses, spray-painted in odd spots around the city. In an underpass near my house there is a heron leaning back casually; I have seen pictures of a heron flying a kite, and a heron on a skateboard.

What, we are forced to wonder, do they mean? What is the significance of them? Their mysterious appearance, connecting obscure corners of the city, was of course most of their charm. Unfortunately, from that perspective, the artist has now come forward and explained his intention: he wished to grace Cambridge with a distinctive ‘urban mascot’. The heron, being native to these parts, ticked the boxes.

So now we know. A simple enough matter. But the heron is a bird that always seems to mean something. They are unpopular with other birds (you frequently see them being mobbed by crows along the river); in flight they are dramatically large, at rest, preternaturally still. They are solitary hunters. Small wonder if fen-dwellers (a curious enough breed themselves) accorded them magical powers, understood them as harbingers of bad luck.

And the couplet, at the top of the post, about the crow and the heron? What does that mean? I could say, because my thirst for meaning is as deep as the next man’s, but I do not want to exhaust its explanatory power. Or something.

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