I was walking our black lab Josh the other morning along the river’s edge in our backyard, and once again I spotted Harry fishing in the river on my property down on the Crooked Creek delta.
He just doesn’t get it. This is my land, I own it. And he knows he’s not supposed to be there. Most mornings, as soon as he realizes I’ve spotted him, he quickly and quietly heads off downstream.
But this morning was different. He didn’t head off downstream. So I called out to him and told him to hold on there, and I asked him why he thought it was okay to keep fishing on my property on the river. His response was interesting.
It seems that from his perspective, he and his family have lived here a very long time, far longer than me and mine, which was admittedly true. We only moved here in 2006. I asked him where he lived.
He explained to me that he lived not far upriver from me, just north of the Hazen Bridge where he raises his family in a sort of communal living arrangement among the sycamores along with several of his relatives.
This is a likely story since, well, I certainly can’t recall having seen any communes up in that area.
But then Harry explained that he and his kind had developed a healthy distrust of most of my people a fairly long time ago. They like fishing the Sangamon, and his family even remembers the first settlers in these parts. They were what we refer to as “Native Americans,” and he explained that they used to call this river “the place where there is plenty to eat.”
Harry said the fishing here was still good, although not like the old timers tell the tales, apparently. But he manages to feed himself and his family while keeping a watchful eye out for intruders into what they regard as “their” territory.
I explained to Harry how I was now the owner of this land, and I have the deed to prove it, and that gives me certain rights over who could fish there.
He just looked off downstream and said he wondered what that really meant. He wanted to know if my deed included the trees on my land.
I said certainly it does and that if I wanted I could cut them all down tomorrow and build a house, or burn them for firewood if I felt like it, even though I don’t. I rather like my trees.
He wondered if I felt like I had any responsibility to the land itself, observing that the trees were probably here long before I was. I assured him that the trees were here but that when I paid for it, they became mine to do with as I please.
At this point, Harry was getting me to thinking: are these really “my” trees? I think so, but in my ownership of them, do I have any obligation to them; to the trees? To protect them for future generations? Interesting.
Then he asked me if the water was mine. I had to explain that that was sort of complicated. According to Illinois water law, I don’t really own the water that flows by, and I can’t dam it up. But I do own the land underneath it, at least halfway out to the center of the river.
He couldn’t really grasp how I might own half a river. He was obviously having a hard time thinking of the river and the river bottom separately, too. Then, he asked me if I owned the fish in my half of the river. And I responded of course not, how can one own a fish that swims around?
And then he asked if I own the birds, such as himself? No, just like the fish, he can move around.
So, Harry recapped that my deed gives me ownership of the land, the plants, and the trees, but not the water, the fish or the birds. I said yes, clearly. Harry then pointed out that if he were a tree here on my land instead of a bird, my deed says I could cut him down and burn him. I said well, yes.
Harry seemed genuinely confused, but frankly, I wasn’t sure what part of this he didn’t get. Then Harry said “I’m getting out of here before you change your laws” or something like that. Then he turned and took flight, flying downriver high among the sycamores with a wooden, squawking “roh-roh-roh” followed by a “frawnk” that I couldn’t readily translate.
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure how accurately I have translated any of this. You see, I’m just learning Great Blue Heron myself and it was kind of tough for me to grasp much of what he was trying to say.
But in the end, I guess that even with my fancy property deed and my Illinois water law books, I’d have to admit that I lost this round of argument to Harry, the Great Blue Heron. And most likely, tomorrow or the day after that, he’ll return to fishing “my” Crooked Creek delta yet again.
And actually, I don’t mind. Because he’s a strikingly beautiful bird, (and not a bad conversationalist, I must admit).
And besides, I rather like my herons.
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, October 18, 2012, by Scott Hays