Poet's Corner: 'The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road' by Ada Limón

Who among us hasn’t seen a bird flying across the cloud streaked sky, or lifting suddenly off of a fence post as an omen, whether good or bad?

Famously, Samuel Taylor Coleridge warned in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” about the terrible omen an albatross offers a sailor, especially if he kills it. Here in Sonoma County, there are no albatross, but the great, lumbering bodies of great blue herons often appear majestically on the roadside as we drive by. The heron has long been considered a good omen representing wisdom, going all the way back to ancient Greece.

In Ada Limón’s poem, “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road,” she invokes this ancient meaning and builds upon it with her own personal experience. The poem begins in the present, with the speaker contemplating the meaning of life when terrible things happen, seemingly without cause.

Some days “you wake up … full of crow and shine, and then someone has put engine coolant in the medicine.”

To find this wisdom, the speaker weaves her way back to a time when she was just a child living in the Valley of the Moon, when her stepfather had silently given up drinking by sitting alone in a lawn chair.

The heron, which they sometimes sighted on the drive to school, became a symbol of the wisdom and love that held them together, no matter what the circumstances were, and they told each other they saw it even when they didn’t.

It’s this wisdom, this sighting of love that the speaker carries with her into her future, that helps her understand who she is.


“The Great Blue Heron ?of Dunbar Road”

by Ada Limón

That we might walk out into the woods together,

and afterwards make toast

in our sock feet, still damp from the fern’s

wet grasp, the spiky needles stuck to our

legs, that’s all I wanted, the dog in the mix,

jam sometimes, but not always. But somehow,

I’ve stopped praising you. How the valley

when you first see it - the small roads back

to your youth - is so painfully pretty at first,

then, after a month of black coffee, it’s just

another place your bullish brain exists, bothered

by itself and how hurtful human life can be.

Isn’t that how it is? You wake up some days

full of crow and shine, and then someone

has put engine coolant in the medicine

on another continent and not even crying

helps cure the idea of purposeful poison.

What kind of woman am I? What kind of man?

I’m thinking of the way my stepdad got sober,

how he never told us, just stopped drinking

and sat for a long time in the low folding chair

on the Bermuda grass reading and sometimes

soaking up the sun like he was the story’s only

subject. When he drove me to school, we decided

it would be a good day, if we saw the blue heron

in the algae-covered pond next to the road,

so that if we didn’t see it, I’d be upset. Then,

he began to lie. To tell me he’d seen it when

he hadn’t, or to suppose that it had just

taken off when we rounded the corner in

the gray car that somehow still ran, and I

would lie, too, for him. I’d say I saw it.

Heard the whoosh of wings over us.

That’s the real truth. What we told each other

to help us through the day: the great blue heron

was there, even when the pond dried up,

or froze over; it was there because it had to be.

Just now, I felt like I wanted to be alone

for a long time, in a folding chair on the lawn

with all my private agonies, but then I saw you

and the way you’re hunching over your work

like a puzzle, and I think even if I fail at everything,

I still want to point out the heron like I was taught,

still want to slow the car down to see the thing

that makes it all better, the invisible gift,

what we see when we stare long enough into nothing.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is Sonoma County’s poet laureate. Contact her at

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