The Garden / Zahrah Vawda
We used to have free bird guides posted through our letter box every now and then. They were colourful, thin sheets of paper, folded into leaflets or stapled into books, with drawings of what birds you might see in the garden. I didn’t know where they’d come from or why they came to us, but when I'd get home from school and find them laying on the floor I’d grab them, run to the garden door, pull up a chair, wait, and watch. I’d tell my mum in amazement, “Those aren’t just pigeons in the garden, they’re WOOD pigeons!” while she kept me company in the dining room and worked through the day-to-day list of things that kept our lives going.
The crystals were melting from the air and the sun was testing its height in the lead up to longer days. I saw loads of small blobs, blue and the size of my fist with a yellow belly and white patched eyes. My guide said blue tit, and I laughed, embarrassed. There was so much potential to be found in the garden. The more I flicked through the sheets of my guide, the more time I’d spend by the garden window over the next few weeks, watching the blue tits and wood pigeons. The more I flicked through the sheets of my guide, the more time I’d spend by the garden window. On the very last page of these sheets of bird guides that came free through our letter box was the grey heron.
Tall and pointy with a striking yellow beak and a slicked black feather over its head, the grey heron is both a prehistoric and futuristic looking type of bird. It spends most of its day sat, waiting on the edges of water. It waits on long stilt legs. You’ll smell it if a heron lives nearby, because its main diet is fish. Often you’ll see it on one leg as the other tucks into its chest and disappears into its body. Its long, branched neck will be hunched in and over to the point that you don’t even know it’s there. For hours it might stay there, stiff with stillness, waiting. Its yellow eyes will glimpse a pattern under the silken water, and with the slightest twitch of its head, life will pump back into its body. Its neck will unravel as it tears into the water’s surface with a stabbing beak, meticulously precise but not always accurate. When it’s successful, the heron will pull its neck back up with its fresh catch held, squirming, between its jaws. With effortless flicks, the live meal will be swallowed to death, falling into the belly of the heron. At other times, the heron will emerge out of the water unsuccessful, returning to its statued stance. The heron was the biggest bird that I might see in the garden.
Our garden had no water. Across the road from our Walthamstow house was a deep patch of woodland. There were ponds in there, somewhere. It was an unknown mosaic of trees with unknown people and unknown sounds weaved in between. It was a place that I couldn’t go to alone, and a place that I barely knew in company. This woodland was and still is part of Epping Forest, the largest green space that touches London, and extends out into Essex in the North and East. Once upon a time, it would have been home to bears and beavers. Now, it houses tawny owls, red fox families, and fallow deer. It is visited throughout the year by rare blue throat birds and great spotted cuckoos. It also hosts us, the thousands of people passing through.
As the seasons go by, so many lives pass through or stay in Epping Forest. The blinding blue of the rare blue throat bird passes in spring on its migration path. The little lungs of the skylark bird scream in areas of the forest during summer. The fallow deer find herds to settle down with for the year during autumn. You can hear the call of the tawny owl on a winter night. But you can always expect to get a glimpse of the grey heron, no matter what season, month, or year it is.
The heron will hunt on its own, will fly on its own, and will be found on its own. But, the lone grey heron will find a colony when winter comes to an end and the opportunity to breed arrives. The colonies will gather at night where they end their day in clusters of nests, called a “heronry”, created in and around a single base tree. Waltham Forest is home to London’s largest heronry, though I didn’t know this at the time when I sat waiting by the window, watching my waterless garden. They breed in the UK all year round, and they’re not easy to miss. The herons’ stillness and shy personality means that they fly off in a panic when taken by surprise, a common sight. It is easy to spot in the sky, as it soars like a pointed arrow to its destination. When the grey heron flies, it transforms from long to wide. It hunches its neck in, squares its shoulders and opens its wings confidently wide. Beating the air with its wings once will carry it for meters before it needs to beat again. Its legs, too long to tuck in anywhere, awkwardly dangle behind, trying to keep up with its body while it flies across the sky.
Weeks and months went by, and the heron never came to the garden. I remember standing in my kitchen, a year after my search began. I was stood leaning against the window of my garden door, listening to my family talking around me. It was late winter and the sun was out, touching the top of the window and warming my back. As my mind switched off, I turned to look outside. In an instant too quick to keep up with, my neck craned up as I saw a huge silhouette disappear over the roof of the house. My mind jumped to heron, because what else could have been that big? Though what would a heron be doing flying over our small, waterless garden?
A year after that mysterious garden visitor, I ventured across the road to the forest opposite my house. By now, I had walked the paths of the forest with friends and family, but it was still unfamiliar to me. This was the first time that I was going in alone. With a book in my hand and the sun high under grey clouds, I wandered into the woods and found myself a comfortable spot by a lake. The trees, leafless, were on the verge of springing back to life. The leaves that covered the floor months ago had broken up and disappeared into the ground. I sat on the grass, moulded into a tree behind me and tucked into my book. I looked up for a second while I was turning a page, and saw the heron, grey, tall, and sharp as it stepped out from the reeds in the water. Each step carefully placed with patience that only the statue-like heron can have. I was frozen with shock and excitement, but the heron’s eye still spotted me once it was fully out of the cover of the reeds. It beat its wings and flew off, spooked.
The heron isn’t a rare sight to me now that I spend so much time by the water, watching the patterns and waiting for inspiration. While I’m used to seeing them now, it hasn’t become any less special. It’s a mark of a day spent enjoying time outside, whether I’m walking along the woods of Hollow Pond, or trekking in the hills of the countryside. I’ll be surprised if I don’t see one, though they never disappoint.
It’s been fifteen years since the free garden bird guides came through our letterbox. It’s morning and the end of winter is marking the days with light that shows the mist of my breath. The wind still carries away the sun’s warmth. I’m looking out the window of my flat, still in Walthamstow, but farther away from the forest that I grew up beside. The wood pigeons that I watched as a child play on the trees, and the blue tits call just as loud as they always have. On my right, a tiny speck pops out from over a grey roof in the distance, unmistakable to me now. The trademark glide of broad bent wings, the hunched and invisible neck, and twigged legs following awkwardly behind, and it hits me. The garden isn’t just the bit of land attached to my childhood house. The garden is the land attached to my home that is Walthamstow, and my home that is Waltham Forest, and my home that is London. This garden is mine, shared with everyone else who passes through and stays here. I watch the heron glide across the landscape, pointed in the direction of the house that I grew up in, opposite the forest. I know the forest well now. I still visit it. I still sit by the pond in the forest of my garden, where I saw the heron and the heron saw me for the first time.