An Ode to Cattle Egret For Bringing a Little Wilderness to Our Penn South in Chelsea

Photo by Walter Naegle


On a dreamy summer afternoon in July, I heard that a new avian creature

Was roaming around our Penn South lawns,

Somewhere between 24th Street and 28th Street

So I wandered back and forth between both streets

To meet our new neighbor, but she was nowhere to be found,

Neither in nor below the sky.

Finally, after hearing that the bird had mostly been spotted on the corner

Of Ninth Avenue and 28th Street, I decided there to stay.

In solemn silence, with unwavering eyes, and with bated breath I waited,

Watching the world go by, people speeding to lives of freedom and chance.

The passersby stared at me in wonder.

One asked, “What are you looking at up there in the sky?”

I replied that I was looking for a bird.

“For a bird?” A soft smile brightened his face.

I felt compelled to explain:

Yes, these creatures, regardless of their size, shape, color or country of origin,

Lure us from our sweet homes into nature, flowering fields, and all above

To watch them soar and dart right by.

We wonder how it feels to fly and see the shadow

Of the magnificent earth from the sky.

Avian wings make claims on our imagination,

Upon which mankind has flown ever further and higher in the orbit of civilization.


A few passersby lingered – birds became a bridge to their memories and fantasies.

Some with tenderness wanting to be cute, like the chickadee with a cheery attitude,

Others wanting to be free and funny, like the parrot, dancing to the rhythm of music.

Still others wanted to be a bald eagle – brave, serene, and free,

Holding an olive branch, offering peace and war no more.

I was delighted and had fun with my new acquaintances’ creative imaginations.

As the golden light gleamed upon the trees and the rays of the sun kissed the grass,

Passersby with passion for life dispersed one by one, speeding to their destination.

With their departure, time sank into silence.

The air was languorous with summer scent

Stirring my emotions, coloring my thoughts.

The rustling leaves danced to the melody of the wind.

The darkness of night would soon fall.

I was ready to return to my sweet home.

Suddenly, the sky filled with echoes of a primal rhythm.

I looked up into the glimmering hues of sunset splendor.

A spirit of the natural world with luminescent white attire

Appearing from the west, hovered over my head like a seraph of peace,

Singing in an unfamiliar language strange and sweet,

A song of things unknown but still longed for.

A bird clever at certain sciences,

With a secret compass of her soul able to see in three dimensions,

Scans the copious trees, branches, and bushes

To harvest her food and build her nest.

Slowly descending toward terra firma, swooping over the fence,

She landed amidst the freshly mowed lawns of Penn South

As if she knew that our community is kind at heart; to birds they do no harm.

Audacious bird, unencumbered by the elusive boundaries of man-made rules,

Carried no baggage or passport except her bits of hope.

With a smile, I murmured to myself, “Birds know no borders.”


I could not believe my lucky eyes,

Falling on this elegant bird adorned with a majestic white garment

Of buff plumes like threads of gossamer

With a highlight of orange-pink feathers on her head extending down her back.

A feathered friend with a hunched posture, short thick neck,

Grayish-yellow short legs, sturdy yellow –orange stout bill,

And green-yellow eyes ringed with white, sparkling like stars

Looking both proud and elegant.

With a smile on my face and a heart filled with hellos I said:

“Welcome to Penn South, unwind and cherish your rest in this oasis.”

Watching this feathered cousin filled me with wonder and tenderness

And for the beholders passing by she became an amusing, thrilling sight.

Thank you, new friend, for bestowing your beauty upon our community

And bringing some wilderness to Chelsea.


I recognized the bird. Softly I whispered, “Egret, cattle egret.”

I thought by calling her name she would gaze at me in turn,

But her eyes were entranced, spying into the crevices of the earth

Placing one foot, then the other, as she wobbled in wide arcs from side to side.

When the manna was revealed,

Her dagger-like beak was quicker than a human hand.

Versatility is her diet; she savors fish, crickets, and small vertebrates,

But today she was hunting in her own fashion,

Gleaning innumerable insects, invertebrates, and tidbits stirred up from the earth.


Finally, after savoring her meal, she stared back at me

With a timeless perceptive gaze,

Taking me from earthly things to another dimension

Where the language becomes wordless.

I was touched by something immeasurable, which I could not describe at first.

I wanted to invite her to be my guest,

To talk about what had driven her astray from her nest,

The beauty of the wildlife and the harmony of the forest.

Solemnly, with intuitive scrutiny,

She opened her mouth like a half moon, her tone full of meaning but without words.

With eloquence so soft, in a whisper she recited her story:

“My genes are rooted in Africa. My name derives from the symbiotic relationship with all kinds of cattle, buffalos and rhinos to mention a few, upon whose back

I forage to take the ectoparasite, a win–win enterprise.

In 1817, the wings of the wind blew my ancestors to North America.

Wandering to find safety and peace, they immigrated in 1953 to Florida.

I once lived in a forest, in a tree,

In a house of straw gathered by my father and braided by my mother.

I needed no more.

But the sacred primeval trees, which within themselves contain all of life’s seeds, were being destroyed.

One day my mother whispered in my ear: ‘Fly, my child, seek a safer world.’

I fluttered from my home, facing new challenges of different hues.

The forces of destiny have taken me through territories unknown,

Some dark nights and some shining moons.”


Egret – survivor of her ethos, full of knowledge of the natural world if we only listen:

“Man is violating the law of nature

By not maintaining the ecosystem in balance and

Unity among all creatures on earth.

The forest where we once lived was lush with green trees, plenty of food to eat,

Places to play and meet during broad daylight or at night,

A corner of our own for repose and to build a nest.

Now our homes have fallen to the ground, no place to rest our tired wings.

The scorching sun rays are harsh, no shadows to cool our heads.

The air has died from the smoke, making it hard to breathe.

I am afraid I will no longer be able to sing, welcoming the rebirth of spring,

Whose myriad blossoms carry the seeds of tomorrow that tell of love and hope,

And birds begin to sing, awakening man’s consciousness

To the ramifications of unloved earth,

The only home in the universe we call our own.

Like you, Homo Sapiens, we also have the right to life,

In nature we cry, in a language that humans do not understand.

For the sake of mankind and all creatures on earth,

We must start today to work toward a better tomorrow.

Some say Not Now… If not now, then when?

If not us, here and now, we have each other to blame.”


Sanguine Egret spoke from the heart,

Her avian inner wisdom reaching across space and evolutionary time,

Wisdom of things true and deep that we mortals, for now, could only dream of.

This immortal moment infused my spirit with awe.

Like a mother’s heart, my soul vibrated with tenderness and then I just began to cry.

Somewhere in the soft fold of memory, I knew this feathered cousin.

We had an ancient conversation in a language I no longer understand.

Her words were like an aria that was never sung, just surmised.


After sharing her story, Egret retreated under the labyrinth of a blossoming tree.

There she sat in solitude behind the veil of leaves

Conversing with her shadow about her immigrant pain in silent tears,

Opening the doorway to ancient memories of exile from her family and friends.

The rustling leaves caressed her softly,

A solemn affirmation of having survived the mélange of life — joy and grief.

From time to time Egret was loquacious, making a melodious tune,

Melancholic and sweet as though calling for some hidden want.

By the great design of the universe, her colored feathers signaled

She had come of courting age to select her mate and build her own nest.

As the sun began to drop below the horizon, day and night merging in mystery,

The moon would soon be smiling in its mystical way

And the stars would soon be too many to count.

Egret, with ecstatic motion, with poise and grace,

Spread her brave wings of freedom as she swooped and soared,

Ascending into the black velvet of the deepening twilight.

It was as though she knew the purpose to her destination.

I wondered what the night prepared for her.

Would she allow her spirit to take her where she longed to be?

Mingle with other souls looking for her perfect mate?

Or maybe return to guard her nest?

Wishing her a safe road that no one else could travel,

Only she must travel for herself.

My eyes followed her into the infinite sky,

Hearing the blessed creature sing a joyous tune to the silence of the night.

Her silhouette of glittering white feathers conjured an image of a white flag

Resonating with an eternal dream of mine, yearning for world peace,

Wondering how many lifetimes it would take for us to realize

That in the circle of life we are all interconnected, forming a harmonious whole,

From mankind to all living things in this immense world,

In ways that our finite minds cannot decipher or understand.

This poem is dedicated to conservationists and all who devote their lives to spreading love and knowledge of birds, animals, and the natural world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner was born in Morocco, lived briefly in France and Israel, and has resided in Manhattan for the past 54 years. A psychoanalyst with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development, and family therapy, Holzkenner has lectured extensively on her clinical work. She loves photographing birds, flowers, and anything visual that creates nostalgia for what we were, what we are, and what we always will be: part of nature. Her photographs have appeared in various publications, as well as in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin. Most recently, her poem, “Hidden Identities in Transition,” inspired by the Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, appeared in the United Federation of Teachers’ publication, “Reflections in Poetry and Prose 2015.” For more of her poetry contributions to Chelsea Now, click on this link.

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