Posted by Michael Fong
Sarah Orne Jewett, "A White Heron"
"No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird's sake? The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heroon's secret and give its life away." (Sarah Orne Jewett, The White Heron)
In "The White Heron", Sylvia eventually learns the location of the white herons resting grounds, and struggles in the end whether she should disclose this secret with the young hunter. Regardless of the immense money that the stranger promised her and pressure from her grandmother, she eventually refuses to yield, thus protecting the lives of the herons, at least for the moment.
The sentimentality within the story simply cannot be missed, and at least I myself felt strongly about it. There was once a great, beautiful park near where I lived back in Hong Kong. It was everything a child could have hoped for: trees with long, sweeping branches and small pond with fish and turtles in it. Families went there for picnics, local carnivals were held there, and I had two of my birthdays there too with my friends. It was a little strip of green paradise in the midst of the heavily industrialized town in where I came from. If one is familiar with Hong Kong though, one would know that it is terribly small, and unfortunately, one day the government announced that the park would have to be removed in order to make way for buildings and a brand new railway system.
Yes, there were protests and people fought to preserve the park, to preserve the white heron, so to speak. And yet, similar to Sylvia in the story, it is easier said than done. I remember the day when the bulldozers came in, when the trees were cut down methodically one by one, and when foul-smelling cement was poured over the barren land after the grass had been mowed. Some time later, a brand new train station stood in place, and from my window I could see it clearly. Of course I was sad, but then after time I find one actually forgets the sadness. There were moments when I would stare blankly outside the window before realizing that the park used to be there, and then I struggle to remember it.
I think Sarah Orne Jewett didn't want that to happen. She wanted to take a picture of her life, the details, everything that mattered to her before they changed. The white heron is the caricature of everything she hold dear, and like Sylvia in the story, she only wishes to record the secret, to learn the secret, but never to disclose it. There is a strong sense of passage of time that struck a similar chord in me. I suppose it may be a little bit cliche, but the old, popular saying "Times change, people change" always prove to be true. One might never know when the white heron is going to be hunted down, or when the bulldozers are going to come and kill off a park. The best that one can do, I think, is to do what Jewett did in "The White Heron": record everything and try to etch it out as deeply as possible into memory, so that even when things change, one can always go back and relish upon the memories of the past.