Semken’s words, bordering on the ecstatic, will touch a nerve in those who have been close to the truly wild.
Together with illustrator Andrew R. Driscoll, Steven H. Semken has created a work that is part mystical exploration, part ornithological study, and part poetry. Soul External: Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron is a book to be savored. If it is true, as the title suggests, that it may be possible to place one’s soul in a safe, secret place, external to the body, to be nourished by the moon, wind, and gentle rain—or by the great blue heron—then this book is a path to that place.
There is a Celtic belief that in what are called the “thin places,” the distance between heaven and earth becomes very small. One such thin place can be found in the American heartland, in a virtually unknown valley in northeastern Kansas. There, in a gathering place of great blue herons, Semken wrestled for fourteen years with a strange power, hoping that its irrational magic would “draw him into disarray”—the kind of disarray that would leave him feeling “more alive, more mystic, more spiritual, more engaged with the world.”
Semken first found the heron’s rookery by following directions faintly drawn on the back of a bank deposit slip. He writes of how, on his first trip there, with more than a hundred of the majestic birds drifting above him, he lost his grip on reality and was amazed, illuminated, and frightened at the intensity of the experience. In writing at once intense and meditative, awe-filled and analytical, rhapsodic and practical, Semken describes his feelings at having been granted a “wildly crazed, prehistoric blessing.”
To read Semken’s intimate musings about his fourteen-year study of the most private lives of these reclusive birds is to be brought into what he described as a “wild liturgy” in which even the trees seemed to prophesy. Mystery and magic are conveyed through his stories of serendipitous encounters with needed information and tales of odd characters who had sought the heron’s secrets before him. The sense of enchantment is enhanced through Driscoll’s images and cryptic lettering, which seems to still the mind and invoke ancient secrets. Semken shares his hope that, through being in the presence of the herons—or in any place or with any creature that is still truly wild—magic, comfort, grace, and truth will be revealed in a language far older than words.
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