The Egret in Me
Judy Wilken, MS
A coastal marsh is not the place for an artist to set up as an artist; the easel, the canvas, the box full of oils, the palette. Too many pieces. “So many brushes. I could fill a quiver,” Mary said as she reached into her pigment box on the back seat of her car and pulled out a few promising brushes. As she stepped carefully into the marsh, she scolded it. “Oh no! Too slippery. Too wet. Too soft.” She felt a gust of Santa Ana wind swirl around her causing her to grab her hat just as it was leaving her head. She began balancing herself, shifting her weight from one mud boot to the other as she carefully stepped through the mud. “He was standing right here yesterday. Did he leave already?” She asked some fairy shrimp that were swimming on their backs in a pool of marsh water. “Where is he?” She looked all around the marsh before spotting him just beyond a mound of hardstem bulrush.
“There he is,” Mary lowered the legs of her easel into the mud, set her palette on it and began preparing for her first ever stopover with a seabird. I’m going to go for red. He has to stand out. Maybe a bit of purplish-blue for the shadow, she thought to herself. She squeezed out clumps of wet pigment, as big as frog heads, onto her palette. “I hope two tubes of white is enough,” she told the egret. You are not a small bird. Forty one inches tall? Just think about that for a moment. Forty one inches tall and a wingspan of five feet. That is the armspan of a six foot man.” A sunflower yellow for his toothless bill and some black for the eyes and legs should be all she needed. Her brushes were paramount for this one work. Large ones? Full? No, not full. Yes, large. “Feathers are what will regulate every mile of his free flight. I will need two of my priceless Kolinskies, and my long handled raggedy Filberts; a round one too for the shadow. And it is perfect for the eyes and legs as well, she decided. “Oh, and the Brights!” She set all the brushes on top of her easel just below her canvas, pulled out her favorite rags from her pigment box before taking a long and dutiful look at the egret.
He was standing upright on one leg, tall and as still as a cattail. He was just fifteen feet away and was staring straight at her. Mary stood still, not as still as he, balancing herself in the slippery mud. They looked at one another for the longest time. A gust of Santa Ana wind slipped through the legs of her easel as she began layering her canvas with short quick strokes of her “stand-out” red pigment. Whenever she looked up at the egret she saw his feathers whipping about in chaotic swirls. Long, wispy feathers were rising up off his body swirling above his head and away from his chest. Silky feathers were blowing every which way revealing a layer of comfort-white down next to his skin. It looks as if some cosmic hairdryer is blowing his feathers, Mary thought to herself. “You’re just lucky you are not standing on a stump,” she told him. The egret’s head looked like a lop-sided brush with raggedy feathers all on one side. “How could we get so lucky,” Mary asked the egret. “The Santa Anas are perfect for your feathers. Wild.” As she worked, Mary noticed a definite but distant rhythm to her rapid brushtrokes. Boom, boomboom. Boom, boomboom. Boom, boomboom.
Mary’s plan was to create a ceremonial wispiness – all virgin white, to the feathers that were being blown about on top of the egret’s head. No pigment would be needed on the brush for these feathers. His chest feathers were an entirely different story. Her strokes had to be long like a glide. And quick like in soaring, giving these feathers a powerful but “plumey look” –she thought. The wind-blowing freedom of the Santa Anas kept up as she continued to fill the canvas in red until it looked like it couldn’t hold another drop. “That’s it!” she said out loud.
Now, he will stand out, Mary thought to herself while watching the red canvas glisten in the sunlight. She filled her favorite round brush with her white and began creating the boundary of the egret’s body, fleshing out a large oval shape at first. “I have to get the nose to tail,” she said as she pulled some of the wet white pigment up, up, and up, at least a full three feet, on the canvas creating a long vertical line for his neck. “Any water snake could slip down that neck,” she told the egret. Perfect, she thought. More pigment went on top of the wet line and she saw his head, his whole face in her mind for the first time. Nose to tail, she reminded herself. A wingspan of five feet lifting only two pounds? She marveled. “I’ve got boxes of chocolates heavier than you,” she chuckled to herself. When she looked again she noticed the feathers on the right side of his body were quiet. She began brushing in his purplish-blue shadow on his quiet side with one of her Brights. It extended from his nose and shadowed him all the way down to his tail. The smallest round brush she loaded with black pigment. Two black eyes she painted, one on each side of his head. Then, the “straight as an arrow” bill in yellow. She painted his spindly legs a mud-black. “My god, they’re like black, hinged toothpicks,” she thought. They were as narrow as the blades of the narrowleaf cattails just twenty five feet away. After the last few strokes of yellow for his “get a load of those feet”, she looked over at the egret and said, “You look like you’re lost on a wind farm.”
Mary picked up her long handled raggedy brush planning on feathering out a distinct look for the egret’s main gliding and soaring feathers with its bristles. She knew that the tips of the bristles could do all the work. They are perfect for pulling the pigment out from his chest with just a few strokes, she thought. “That five foot wingspan has got to be something of an event,” she told the egret. She began building his “gliding” feathers slowly, long strokes piled on top of one another, slightly angled toward his foie gras. By making each stroke a little shorter than the previous one, she could fluff up his wing space until you were sure that that wingspan was very possible. “Such a perfect wind. You’re crazy with feathers. I can’t believe it.” Mary told the egret.
As she was gently brushing in some grey splashes giving the wings some depth, Mary leaned away from the canvas and got caught in a quick gust of wind causing her to shift her weight once again from one mud boot to the other. She steadied her body with legs a few feet apart while she studied the egret’s “canvas” head. Instantly, she decided to add what was glaringly missing. “A spot of red in that eye. Of course. How could I not see that?” She took her round sable brush, just barely touched it to a tiny smudge of red pigment on her palette then leaned toward the egret’s left “canvas” eye. With a steady hand she lowered the brush into the black eye and watched a red spot spread into it. “Red blood in there. Life in there,” she whispered to herself. Suddenly, she felt the hairs of her brush move, pulse just once while inside the black. She stared at the “canvas” eye, keeping the bristles in the red spot. She felt another pulse run up her brush and into her arm. She kept the bristles in the black and slightly leaned away from the canvas, somewhat startled by what she just felt. What did I feel? she asked herself. “Oneness,” she said outloud.
It felt like she was feeling not a diminished thing, but was feeling life. What if I am feeling something truly divine– a gift? A gift –alive — now unlocked, Mary thought.
Mary squinted at the egret, who by now, was standing on two legs and had a bill full of his kind of caviar, fairy shrimp. Things had changed. Things weren’t the same now as they were just moments ago. After a long pause, Mary announced to him, “The egret in me must speak to the egret in you,” She withdrew the brush from the “canvas” eye and began telling the egret her story.
“All my strokes on this canvas are ‘stopover’strokes. That’s because you are at a “stopover” during your spring migration north. You are now in the largest energy event of your lifetime. You need to fatten up for all the chores you are about to own. Mating, building a nest and rearing young before you all return south have consequences.
“This is the most important, probably the first, community building event you have ever been part of. The fairy shrimp help you build strong feathers which are the primary regulators of your journey. Frogs, lizards and snakes give a perfect nutritional balance during this time. Their energy becomes your energy so you can fly thousands of miles north. Build your own nest. Mate. Care for your chicks, then return south. Every migration demands that you surrender to life and become social, you become part of a community and live in the wondrous living economic system that is unique to Earth.”
The egret dipped his head into and out of the marsh water as Mary continued telling her story. “Energy is circulating through your feathers just as it is circulating through my body. It is circulating through all 11 pairs of legs of each one of those fairy shrimp you are eating. It circulates through all life. Your DNA and my DNA, all of our DNA, sheds patterns of photons of light. We came from light, you, the fairy shrimp and I. Your pattern of pulses is the “egret pattern” while my pattern of pulses is the “human pattern.” And the shrimp pattern of pulses is the “fairy shrimp pattern.” Her eyes never left the egret’s body. “To put it more correctly, I should say we ‘borrowed light’, whether while in an egg or a uterus. You ‘borrowed light’ so you can live and I ‘borrowed light’ so I can live, and the fairy shrimp ‘borrowed light’ so they can live. We are the players in the energy economy of communal life.
“As players, we exchange spirits, exchange a sense of communion during every moment we are living. Out of this exchange we must become guardians of one another. You and the fairy shrimp inform us humans of the health of our wetlands and oceans and we must monitor our behavior so as not to threaten your habitat. You and the shrimp are our bio-indicators of the health of coastal wetlands and oceans. And we must be your bio-indicator, your guardian, for the health of your habitat. You connect with us while you are flying, eating fairy shrimp or munching on frogs, fish, and swallowing snakes. And we must connect with you by creating sustainable wetlands and oceans. You and I, we must dine and play in the communal economics of life.” As Mary took her eyes off of the egret and looked back onto her canvas she recalled the lines of a Hafiz poem she had read years ago.
Let’s turn loose our golden falcons
So that they can meet in the sky
Where our spirits belong
Necking like two
A cluster of Santa Ana gusts continued to whip up around the egret’s silky feathers once again revealing his layer of comfort-down next to his skin. Mary grabbed at her hat as it was leaving her head, looked at the egret and told him, “I know what I am going to title this work. I am going to call this piece HOT TODDY.” The egret was standing on one leg again while Mary packed up her pieces and walked through the slippery, wet marsh mud to her van. She turned around to look at the egret one last time. He was gone. Mary looked up into the sky and saw a five foot white event, the egret’s wingspan, circling above. “See you next time, Hot Toddy!”
“Hot Toddy” from Egret Series by Mary Kay King, Carmel, California. Her artwork can be viewed at the following galleries:
Amphora, Carmel, Sixth and San Carlos Carmel, Ca. 831 624 3420
Venture Gallery, Portola Hotel and Spa, Monterey, Ca. 831-372-6279
The Red Pear Gallery, Carmel Valley Village, Ca. 831-659-5568.