A classmate says to me she’s going for a paddle up Salt Creek. My eyes shift from the paper I’m reading to squint over the harbor. This opportunity, I know, cannot be passed on a day like today. She says she wants to retrieve the dead heron our class found on the last trip. I remember the bird, a Great Blue Heron, the largest of the species in North America. I had not expected that blue, tangled mass strangled by skeins of fishing line. The bird’s sodden feathers spread with the pulse of the current and his neck, devoid of any muscle tension, hung on the water. The clear membrane over his eye, used to clean his vision during life, reached from the corner socket but never fully rinsed his death-sight. I remember imagining his final hours, caught in a line so carelessly discarded, and not able to understand the reason why he lost his flight—and that’s when nature caught me in the throat. My classmate says she saw the heron on her last outing on the creek, and she and my professor think it would be good to preserve the bird for future students. I agree and together we load a canoe with a forty gallon bin, grabbers, and work gloves. Our professor meets us prepared and says, a colleague in the science department gave instructions to preserve the bones. He said, “Wrap the body in chicken wire and put it on an ant hill for a couple days.” We set out to find the heron, and we all feel a little uneasy.
We don’t find the bird, and I’m a little relieved. Then, at the Fourth Street Bridge I see a scarlet flash from the aquatic dun. At first, I think it’s a tackle box, but it’s not. It’s a sewing box. I take it home. I separate the unruly strings and place the spools upright on a cookie sheet. I find an envelope of twelve sewing needles that cost ten cents. Manufactured in England by a company called Milward’s, the long eye needles have started to oxidize. Everything looks old. I read different button companies: Genuine Pearl, Quality Button, and Lansing. The spools are from Clarks and Talon and range from thirty-five cents to sixty cents. My mind wanders to the exchange at the sewing shop; and now, somehow, the bobbins and buttons survived their history to land in my living room.
I take the weekend to clean a box and preserve its history. I take an old toothbrush, dip it into the vinegar, and scrub the fabric. I scrub the hinges and the supports. I scrub the screws and connectors. The lock and key, I scrub, until they shine. It’s easy to focus on small objects. However, the creek is a living system and it requires direct care. The numerous species who make the creek home deserve better than the Great Blue Heron. I wish we could have saved his body from the muck and the pollution and dignified his bones with preservation. Display his insides, the structure of his bones and the way they fit together to show us how to take flight.