Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Of canals and herons

A heron perched on roof tiles of a school building at the bottom of our garden last Saturday morning as we were eating breakfast. It was still very frosty and he fluffed up his feathers so they resembled a ragged blue skirt over his lower white plumage. This was the second time I’d seen him perch there recently. I suspect he uses it as a vantage point between the two patches of water in Robin Hood Golf Course and Olton Mere.

The Mere was built in the late eighteenth century as a holding tank for water from Hazel Brook to feed the local section of the Warwick to Birmingham canal. Now it’s owned by a private sailing club with no access for the public unless they are willing to pay annually for the privilege. You catch tantalising glimpses of open water from the train as it rushes past on its way from Olton to Solihull station.

Canals often provide me with a means of escape from city or suburban life. When the sun shines I disappear from the office towards the Convention Centre situated at the heart of the restored Birmingham Canal system. If I walk towards Wolverhampton I can check on shepherds purse, plantain, horseradish, nettles, blackberries, rosehips and, my favourite, elder trees.

Occasionally I turn left rather than right and walk towards the university. It was along this path I discovered wild rue and mugwort while a guardian heron slept on one leg on top of a brick wall next to a new block of flats.

It always makes me curious when a new animal or bird crosses my path more than once. I wonder what their presence might teach me. If you search the internet, herons are mainly described while they are standing in deep water, yet my encounters with them have mainly been perching on high places either on tall trees or walls/roofs.

Herons are often associated with balance and harmony, knowing when to connect and when to stand on your own. They teach active patience, learning to wait until what you need comes to you and then spearing it, grabbing opportunities when they arise.

Their slate blue feathers can be associated with the “third-eye”, the energy centre situated in the middle of the brow/forehead. This centre helps with intuitive perception, the “gut feeling” you learn to rely on or, in my case, the sudden understanding about why a person is acting a certain way without any prior knowledge or information. I call it “reading the silence”. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, the insight is profound.

The really good thing about finding a heron near a canal means there must be fish living in the water. Herons are the curse of every fishpond owner as they can clear a garden pond within a few minutes. I remember one eating all the trout in the Sanctuary pond before I left school in the mid-70s and we’ve never had fish there since.

I don’t know a great deal about fish, but someone I met by the Olton canal last October said there was a wide variety of fish living there including a large pike!

What did surprise me during my canal walk was the variety of herbs and trees. As well as elder, hawthorn and horse chestnut trees, there were hazel, holly and sycamore - all mature trees with lots of undisturbed saplings growing up in any available space.

On the banks were dog rose and blackberry briars with plantain, garlic mustard (jack by the hedge), false alkenet, coltsfoot and nettles on the lower slopes. What surprised me was the large bed of alpine strawberries. I wondered if they were wild or escaped from a nearby garden.

Despite the traffic travelling over intermittent bridges, the towpath itself was blissfully quiet; the only noise a gentle splash from moorhens and mallards swimming on the surface of the water.

It was not long after the Autumn Equinox when I walked along the canal basking in the peace and sunshine and thinking about the Irish navvies who created both the canal and the railway which runs alongside. There is still another month before the Spring Equinox. Although days are definitely longer now, I am curbing any impatience to be up and doing. The heron brings a timely lesson - it is enough to be resting, watching and waiting for a few weeks more.

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