The lesson of the great blue heron

Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere” G. K. Chesterton

Last post was a truly epic ramble about the importance of art. Part of the case I was offering was that we sometimes get so caught up in the specifics that we lose sight of the bigger picture. In other words, its more easy to advocate for something that obviously needs defending than to see the repercussions of only having so narrow a focus. We say “yes” to painting and a host of other traditional arts virtues, when to do so limits our ability to support other equally important causes. Sometimes its robbing Peter to pay Paul, though we don’t often care to admit it.

Is salvaging a place for opera more important than a child’s ability to nurture creativity? When you phrase it like that its not always so clear. Its easy to say “yes” to opera, but not so easy to say “no” to a child’s education. We don’t often acknowledge that saying “yes” sometimes also implies “no” to other alternatives. But this is the inevitable problem in addressing these questions short sightedly and in having so many of our eggs all in one basket.

Maybe we think that having all our treasured high points will be enough to save us, or that we are not otherwise in serious danger. Or perhaps we see the iceberg ahead and imagine we are something like the musicians on the Titanic: We are playing a lovely tune as the ship sinks, taking a stand on nobility in the face of disaster.


But maybe we are actually more like Nero, setting fire to Rome as the spectacular accompaniment of our fiddle playing: We are defiantly risking a holocaust for the sake of our art.


Its not always easy to tell….

And this is what the great blue heron helped me understand.

Out in the back of my yard, where I can gaze thoughtfully as I sit at my wheel making pots, there is a pond. In that pond are a dozen dozen small goldfish, perfect eating size for predator raccoons and such.

As I walked out to my studio that day I saw a huge shadow pass over me. Not a plane, because there was no sound. But then not the normal birds that share my backyard either. I rushed out to see who my new visitor was and discovered this long necked spindly legged creature stooping over my pond.

From experience I knew that a few unguarded moments with a hungry blue heron could wipe out the entire fish population of my pond, so I rushed out the back of my studio and yelled a bit and waved my arms a bit more. The bird took the hint and flew off.

I had just made the decision between feeding that great big bird and keeping my stock of pond fish alive. I didn’t know if the bird was on its last legs and desperately needed the meal (this was of course possible). I didn’t know if it would have been satisfied with a few fish and left the others. But I decided in favor of the fish just the same. And so it became clear to me that deciding this and not that was ultimately a moral decision. I had just drawn a line.

Its not obvious, and sometimes our lives present things as being much more straight forward. But it seems that as artists we should be at least somewhat familiar with this scenario. Every time we create something new, and we decide to make it a certain way, we are also deciding against doing it other ways. We say “yes” to this, and “no” to everything else. When we let our imagination spill over into the world by creating things we are deciding the new shape of that part of the world. Does the world now include this new thing or does it not? Does it include something of this shape and design or something else?

When we give creative birth to something we push everything else it might have been further back on the wheel of incarnation. Or we let it die stillborn…. We are deciding what has the right to an existence. We are deciding what has the right to live, and how we think the world can be made more liveable. We are saying that this one mug will make the world a better place… if but for a moment and but for the one person using it.

But a humble difference is a difference none the less, and we need to include more of them in our thinking if we hope to nourish our creative insight into the world. Creativity can be described as connecting the dots. Just how many dots do we connect up to? Just how many other dots are included in our consideration of the world and our place in it? Are we islands on our own or members of a community? Does the world exist for our pleasure or are we meant to serve a greater good?

The lesson of Nero is not that some men are evil, but that evil exists because some men lose sight of the wider context of their actions. Even the most despicable persons are entirely justified within the bounds of their self absorption and dedicated pursuit of their own ends. They simply can’t see the importance of the dots surrounding them. They are creatively unimaginative. Oblivious. Its possible to commit great wrongs in the name of reasonable goals that merely fail to account for other people’s interests. Its only because “I am right” at the expense of “you are right” that wars are started and hatred is allowed to fester. Blind ambition and a carelessness about consequences will unfortunately always be the source of a great many wrongs.

So before we rush to judgement, before we shoo off that great big bird at our pondside, perhaps its important to see just what we are deciding against in drawing our lines. Perhaps just a bit of attention should be spared to the consequences of bulldozing that old house, paving over that field, dumping in that stream, drilling in that ocean, cutting that other driver off, being mean to strangers, friends, and family, insulting and demeaning people in our lives, considering only our own wants and needs, being selfish, gluttonous, vain, envious, jealous, greedy, wrathful, proud…..

The Buddhists place such great store in compassion. For good reason. Compassion is simply drawing a line that includes far more than just ourselves or our immediate interests. This is the lesson that the great blue heron taught me. “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.”

(Yeah, of course I’m a Libra…. What else would you expect?)

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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4 Responses to The lesson of the great blue heron

  1. Pam says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Although all your posts have much thought in them, this one in particular caught my attention today. I especially like how you get us readers/artists to think about art and life. That is the making of a really great teacher. Keep them coming. -Pam

    • Thanks Pam!

      I like to think I’m a decent teacher, but I’ve known great ones and I know I’m not anywhere close. But for me being a teacher also means being a student at the same time. I’m learning as I go, and my teachers are all about me and hidden in surprising packages. I like to think that I’m at least open to learning new things. And if sharing this journey with you folks brings me new teachers and new insight, then I’ve done pretty well for myself.

      Thanks for joining me on this exploration! Its great to have decent company!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    This is a great one. Really insightful; lots to think about.

    “And so it became clear to me that deciding this and not that was ultimately a moral decision. I had just drawn a line.” I really like how you connected this to the choices we make about which pots to make and how to make them. I think that’s exactly right, even when practiced at such a small scale.

  3. From an NPR story:

    “Take the case of the valley’s trumpeter swans. These are the largest waterfowl in North America. They have a 7-foot wingspan. They’re ivory-white, curvaceous, and elegant — and 80 years ago they were almost extinct. Simply put, there were too many people using the same land the swans needed. And there were too many hunters.

    The flock of trumpeters I found lounging on a lake in the Centennial Valley belongs to a small population that has struggled back from the brink. In the Centennial, biologists built ponds for the birds, and fed them — and the swans’ numbers recovered.

    Unfortunately, what was good for the swans was not so good for the Arctic grayling, another rare species in the valley.

    What happened was this: To make the swan-friendly valley even more so, the biologists created ponds by damming streams. When they did that, the grayling lost streambeds they’d been using for egg-laying and reproduction.”

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