Sarah Orne Jewett wrote a white heron in 1886.
A little girl named Sylvia is walking her cow home from a day of grazing. Every day she takes the cow out to graze and when it comes time to go home, they always play a hide and seek game.
Sylvia spends her time while the cow grazes exploring the woods and swamps and world around where she lives.
“Everybody said that it was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but, as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before, she came to live at the farm.”
And on this particular day as Sylvia is walking the cow home at twilight, she hears a man’s whistle, is scared, and hides in the bushes. But she’s too late, the man has seen her and calls out to her.
“She did not dare to look boldly at the tall young man, who carried a gun over his shoulder, but she came out of her bush and again followed the cow, while he walked alongside.”
The young man says he has been hunting for birds and that he’s lost. He asks if he can stay at her house. Sylvia is distressed at this, she thinks it’ll get her in trouble with her grandmother.
But the grandmother snaps into hostess mode when she sees the young man.
“Dear sakes, yes,” responded the hostess, whose long slumbering hospitality seemed to be easily awakened. “You might fare better if you went out to the main road a mile or so, but you’re welcome to what we’ve got. I’ll milk A White Heron and Other Stories A White Heron and Other Stories 2 right off, and you make yourself at home. You can sleep on husks or feathers,” she proffered graciously. “I raised them all myself. There’s good pasturing for geese just below here towards the ma’sh. Now step round and set a plate for the gentleman, Sylvy!” And Sylvia promptly stepped. She was glad to have something to do, and she was hungry herself. “
The man is surprised at the cleanliness of this rural house. He had assumed it would be a poor place of squalor. He can tell that they are poor, but that the house is well kept.
The man eats and talks to Sylvia and her grandmother. The grandmother talks about her family and Slyvy:
“”Sylvy takes after him,” the grandmother continued affectionately, after a minute’s pause. “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creaturs counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds. Last winter she got the jay−birds to bangeing here, and I believe she’d ‘a’ scanted herself of her own meals to have plenty to throw out amongst ’em, if I hadn’t kep’ watch. Anything but crows, I tell her, I’m willin’ to help support”
The young man priks up when he hears that Slyvia knows about birds. He tells them that he’s a collector of birds and that he’s after a few rare ones. He says he’s an ornithologist and that he’s after a White Heron that he saw last week around this area.
“You would know the heron if you saw it,” the stranger continued eagerly. “A queer tall white bird with soft feathers and long thin legs. And it would have a nest perhaps in the top of a high tree, made of sticks, something like a hawk’s nest.”
And Sylvia does know the bird.
“Sylvia’s heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods.”
The man says that he’d pay ten dollars if someone would help them find it. The grandmother is amazed at this, they’re poor and ten thousand dollars could do a lot for them. It’s about 150 dollars.
The next day the hunter goes out and Sylvia tags along. She’s enamored by him but wishes he didn’t have the gun.
“Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young creatures who traversed the solemn woodlands with soft−footed silent care”
She knows the man is looking for the white heron, but she doesn’t lead him to it, she just follows him around.
The next morning Sylvia goes out and climbs a large tall oak tree. She begins to climb the tree.
“Sylvia began with utmost bravery to mount to the top of it, with tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame, with her bare feet and fingers, that pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself. First, she must mount the white oak tree that grew alongside, where she was almost lost among the dark branches and the green leaves heavy and wet with dew”
She watches the sun rise and then she sees the white heron.
“She knows his secret now, the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers, and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath.”
She goes home, and they question her about where she’s been when she gets back.
“He was sure from the way the shy little girl looked once or twice yesterday that she had at least seen the white heron, and now she must really be made to tell.”
But Sylvia doesn’t tell them. She steels against her grandmother’s admonitions and the man’s manly charms.
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 heron’s secret and give its life away.
Then the narrator addresses the world and tells the reader that this girl is a friend of nature and tells nature to bring this small girl your secrets because she will keep them.