« One death for one life, a fundamental principle of life on Earth. A sentence which can be delayed, which can give the illusion of being circumvented, but which, whatever form it takes, will always end up falling. It is the necessity imposed by a finite world, our planet, on which life has sought to fill every corner for billions of years. Billions of years of uninterrupted births which have nevertheless failed to saturate or exceed the available space in this world. Infinity has made its place in the limited. The infinite in the finite. What could seem like a miracle isn’t one. Death has paved the way for every step of life. Without this multitude of disappearances, there would never have been this multitude of appearances.
Life is natural, common, banal to us, but death challenges us. Witnessing the one of wild animals remains a rarity which awakens these questions. It is said that birds hide to die, but what about this young heron? Crouching on the edge of the frozen lake, near the house, I watch him pass by with his slow, heavy flight. No hoarse cries when he sees me, no panicked flapping of his wings to avoid me. On the contrary, he tilts his trajectory to crash fifteen meters from me, beak in the sand, under the alders. With a sharp movement, he pushes on his neck, his wings and stands up. No sign of embarrassment in his attitude. It is more the resignation that shines through in his immobility, his head buried deep in his shoulders, in this pouring, icy rain.
The gray eyebrows and the ocher and sienna hues on his neck indicate that he is only a few months old. Hatching of this summer. I find him thin but it is impossible to judge the weight of a bird by its plumage.
Could it then be the naivety of his youth which appears to me as distress? which would explain why he landed here, where the ice is thickest, where it is impossible for him to fish, when a few dozen meters further on, the mouth of the torrent retains the open water where other herons usually dwell?
It’s getting late, night is coming and we have to leave. When we get into the car, he is on the ice, even more exposed to the elements. A few hours later, as we come back home, we take advantage of the hairpin that leads to the house to illuminate the entire shore of the lake with the cars headlights without seeing any sign of his presence. I take this as encouragement. He probably flew away, seeking shelter.
At first light the next morning, we looked out the window and eventually saw a dark mass lying in the sand, exactly where he had landed. It’s him, dead on the beach. A heron would never lie down like that. With a sad step, we walk towards him in the rain which never stops falling. But doubt grows and we realize our mistake. It’s just a dark stone that we’ve never paid attention to in over three years of living here. Relief. Because thinking about it, what were the chances of observing this heron only to see him die a few hours later, when it could have been in a few days, weeks or not at all, and elsewhere.
However, I felt no surprise at this conclusion. Thinking of finding him dead made strangely sense. So I still take a look around. In the undergrowth, among the dead leaves, he is there, lying face down. So he is indeed dead, but a few meters further from where we mistakenly thought we had seen his corpse. Strange coincidence, heartrending. He is rigid, frozen. Was he already dead when we returned last night? I touch his chest, just a protruding keel bone, no muscle. Extreme thinness. His last wing beats must have been torture. His weak legs could not support the weight of his landing.
So it was an exhausted young bird, landing next to me a few hours before his death. We can see it as a coincidence or a final attempt to survive whatever the risk. Should I have helped him? Retrospective answers are always the simplest, but initial doubts impose a precautionary principle which prevents action, out of ignorance and fear of aggravating an already complicated situation.
A few minutes later, I am standing in front of a makeshift easel, above the heron, painting as best I can. My left hand, paralyzed from the cold by the gusts, holds an umbrella which struggles to protect the watercolor sheet. The rain splashes everything, drowns my palette and dilutes the alcohol with which I paint. Little by little, I understand that I am sharing the conditions that were those of the last moments of his life…
A quick, intuitive sketch to quickly grab the brush. I have to deal with splashing rain, wet hands and the wind shaking the umbrella.
Everything is dark. No light coming from the sky. Only the glow from the road filters through the trees. A few steps from ice to sand. A few leafless trunks against the rain and the wind which is getting stronger. Stumbling. Trying to sleep, legs weakening. The water seeping under the feathers, the cold intruding. The headlights of a turning car.
The layers of watercolors follow one another. I rush. Paper dries more and more slowly when it is not flooded. I barely notice that I am soaked and frozen. All that matters is this heron, this painting.
A few more steps in the leaves, a little more under the trees. Maybe a shelter. A gust. Thrown to the ground. Useless attempts to get up. The wings half open, the heat escapes. This pump that hammers the chest is weakening. One last beat, one last breath, the eyes slowly close. Only the muffled sound of drops on the feathers persists.
Nothing dries anymore. I walk towards the house, protecting this precious image which becomes a tribute to this life, to this bird, a visible drama for so many others untold, like so many of these sad necessities which tirelessly pave the path of life. »