The Canoe Club of Fort Bend County, the “Benders”, and the Kayaking Club of Brazoria County, the “Bros”, invited me, Don Key, to their first combined event. It was to paddle a stretch of Brazos River that uneasily divides the counties. Though an eminent paddler and bird specialist, I attended this event only as the Unacknowledged Master of Ceremonies. I brought a canoe and my long-time paddling assistant, Poncho Sanza, who was intended to paddle harmlessly in the stern.
The violent rivalry of these counties was thought behind them. The two clubs’ members shook hands and launched their boats. I refrained from making a speech onshore because people seemed in a hurry to get on the water. I did however offer a small benediction standing in the bow of our canoe after launching, my hands a steeple in front of my chest: “Let this cherished moment of club togetherness forever banish the rivalries and sometimes bloody conflicts that have spattered the two counties’ shared waters.”
It may have been difficult to hear me.
All went well for several bends in the river.
The paddlers were repeatedly frightening one gigantic Great Blue Heron. The GBH, as we decorated birders like to refer to them, ‘notched’ up and away as our flotilla approached – squawked and took flight to relocate, over and over. The Benders and the Bros remarked upon this and then got to bragging. One Bender said he was “the best living Great Blue Heron squawker”. His fellow Benders said they were the next-best-living squawkers. At this, the Bros took exception.
One Bro claimed he was “the best that had ever lived” at calling the Great Blue Heron, even counting the ancient Assyrians. “Not even close,’ he said. One female Bro paddler said she was internationally ranked, through some sort of credentialing authority such as oversees international soccer. Each group began to paddle more fiercely. The clubs decided to hold a contest for which was better at calling the heron. Each group would take a separate side of the river and persuade the GBH we were following to come to them. Winner would be the group the GBH was drawn to, to live in eternal memory.
They took the two extreme sides of the river and commenced their racket.
The squawk of the launching Great Blue Heron is like the creak of a door to a derelict house pushed open for the first time in forty years, six inches within a single second, and then repeated. The sound showily expresses many things, but above all alarm and urgency. It is also the sound one hears on a dock, stepping on a still-living Shovelhead Catfish. Novices try to approximate the sound with the spelling “Auk!” Connoisseurs approximate the caramel notes and tanned leather/wild cherry tones by the spelling “Rraungck!” (The Benders and the Bros each refuse to write down the spelling of their calls, for proprietary reasons.)
The widely separated clubs set to Rraungcking. The bird continued notching down the river, if anything, more frequently. The two clubs noticed their combined failure, kept Rraungcking a short time more and then drifted together, shouting recriminations at one another.
They then began ramming their crafts against one another and jostling with their paddles. All the while Rraungcking. The personal flotation devices perhaps saved lives, pads softening the blows.
As the noble heart present there, and Unofficial Master of Ceremonies, I raised my voice to stop them from their warring. One canoe on either side was capsized. An Old Town canoe owned by a Bender had a hairy gash in its fiberglass, and a Brazoria County dowager had a broken nose. I shouted “this must stop immediately!” and they paused to list.
I summoned my considerable rhetorical skills to touch first on the history of bird-worship: “The Egyptians hallowed a water bird, the ibis, as a deity - a calming presence for the peoples of the Nile. Painted scrolls and ceramics from Chinese millennia depicted the stork and the heron calm in their two-dimensional rivers. Waterfowl were blameless in the Black Death in Europe, the World Wars and the Cold War; they seem unlikely to figure in the coming Cyber Winter. It is because they take careful steps, poke around and fish through it all. They are models for avoiding conflict. They teach us this lesson: “Notch down, notch down! Fly from aggression! Fly from overheated passions!” I closed my speech with my forefinger in the air: “Notch down, notch down, my fellow humans! Conform your behavior to the Great Blue Heron!”
I believe this burst of oratory brought them to their senses. Forefinger still in the air: “Life is both flow and stagnancy! Stand firm in the currents but maintain your distance from any predators!”
And it would have worked - saved the day, cooled the passions - it hadn’t been for that blunderer in the stern of my canoe, Poncho Sanza. Poncho launched his own remarks, to the effect that when he had been in high school, he was acknowledged by all in his school and community to be the absolute best that ever was at imitating the call of the Great Blue Heron. And then he produced an abortifacient version of such call, strong and vulgar on the river – “NGAUNRK!”
The concatenation was tremendous. Each club’s members angrily splashed our boat with their paddles, drew close and thumped us, swung with paddles, feet and fists. They flailed at us until we tumped overboard. We swam under cloudy water to a sheltering screen of cypresses. Poncho had united the two clubs into one club of enmity against an absurd claimant of the heron’s true call. When they’d cleared off, we limped ourselves through the woods to the take-out. The two clubs’ members were all gone, unified.
“Poncho you ignorant fool,” I said. “Could you not leave well enough alone, letting them reverence the historical, mythological, enigmatical and timeless waterbird? Why did you have to interject?”
“I’m a good heron caller. As good as anyone.” Poncho said. “And they were all puffed up with their bragging and calling. As the saying goes, “Fine feathers make fine birds.” And another, “Though the monkey’s dressed in silk, he remains a monkey”. You shouldn’t fault me for having the snap to deflate some pompous blowhards. As the saying goes, “We’re all the same when our heads are underwater.”
After several minutes of sullenly inspecting bruises, I said magnanimously, “Poncho I take your point.” “I take your point, despite your impenetrable proverbs. But the next time, leave your rectitude on shore, and spare us the beatings.”
“The next time,” Poncho said, “we should paddle only with clubs who are interested solely in astronomy. And there aren’t many of those. And then only during the daytime.”
By David Portz