A half mile from Sylvia and Mrs. Tilley’s home stands a pine tree that woodchoppers spared when they cut down the rest of the forest. The forest has since grown back, but this old tree towers over the land. Sylvia would often look up at this tree, thinking that if she climbed it, she could see all the way to the ocean. Now she thinks about how if she climbs it, she might locate the white heron’s nest.
Because the pine tree was conserved when all the other trees of the forest were cut down, Sylvia can use it to gain the knowledge she seeks. Nature, when conserved, can provide knowledge for generations to come. But once again, where Sylvia once saw wonder in nature, she now only thinks about accomplishing the goal of finding the heron.
Thinking of this tree, adventure and ambition fill Sylvia’s mind. That night, she cannot sleep, so she sneaks out alone. She hears birds awakening and chirping as she passes them and feels a sense of “comfort and companionship.” The narrator remarks, “Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!”
The narration of Sylvia’s journey cautions against allowing “human interest” to disrupt one’s simple enjoyment of nature. This also suggests resiliency in Sylvia’s connection to nature even with this new “human interest.” Notably, Sylvia must take this journey alone, without another human interfering.
Sylvia arrives at the pine tree and is filled with bravery and hope as she begins her climb. Her grip is like that of “bird’s claws” as she climbs “the monstrous ladder reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself.” She disturbs a bird and a red squirrel from their homes as she goes up.
In order to summon bravery, Sylvia embodies aspects of birds, showing her deep and important connection to nature. However, her progression up the tree also disturbs her natural environment, which shows the dual nature of her journey: she is simultaneously connected to nature and intending to disrupt it by killing the heron.
Sylvia struggles as she climbs up the tree because twigs scratch her like “angry talons” and sticky pitch makes her hands clumsy. Sparrows and robins begin to twitter as dawn arrives and Sylvia feels time running out to complete her mission.
Nature itself seems to be rejecting Sylvia here. The description of her difficult climb and her feeling that time is running out amps up the tension of this scene.
The narrator remarks that the tree must be amazed by Sylvia’s bravery and therefore must steady its twigs in order to help her. Sylvia is braver than all the other creatures of the forest, so the tree must be holding still against the winds for her sake.
Sylvia finally reaches the top of the tree, feeling tired yet triumphant. She sees the sea with the rising sun “making a golden dazzle over it,” and she notices two hawks flying below her and imagines that she herself could fly. To the West, the woodlands and farms stretch out for miles and the narrator remarks, “truly it was a vast and awesome world.”
Her experience transforms her once simple perspective towards nature into one that fully understands the scope of her world. Her interaction with nature here is transcendent, allowing her to gain new knowledge of her world. Notably, her aerial perspective allows her to see hawk flight from above rather than below, which makes her inhabit a bird’s perspective and empathize with them to the extent that she imagines that she herself can fly, too.
The birds’ songs grow louder as Sylvia observes the sailboats on the sea and the fading colors of the sunrise on the clouds. But she still searches for the white heron’s nest. She looks to the marshlands where she saw the bird once before and there it is: a white spot rising up in the sky. It flies by the pine, revealing its “sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head.” Sylvia cannot move a muscle, because the heron perches on a branch close below hers to call to its mate and plume its “feathers for the new day!”
The awe Sylvia feels at the heron paralyzes her. She adopts the perspective of the heron, understanding its motives and actions. She recognizes the heron as an independent being, not just an object for humans to possess. The white heron symbolizes nature in general, which she must choose whether or not to save after fully observing and identifying with it.
Sylvia “gives a long sigh a minute late” when some other loud birds come to the tree and “vexed by their fluttering and lawlessness the solemn heron goes away.” Feeling satisfied, she climbs down, which is just as difficult as climbing up. She wonders how the hunter will react when she reveals to him the secret of the white heron’s location.
Despite her transcendent experience with the heron, Sylvia still intends to help the hunter find and kill it. At this moment, the temptations of monetary reward and human relationships are stronger than the moral need to conserve nature.
Back at home, Mrs. Tilley finds Sylvia’s bed empty and begins calling for her granddaughter. The hunter wakes and looks forward to another day of searching for the bird, believing that Sylvia hinted the day before that she might know where the heron lives and that he could persuade her to reveal her information.
This scene elaborates on the differing priorities for the characters. Mrs. Tilley is concerned for her granddaughter’s safety while the hunter is singularly focused on obtaining the heron, showing the corrupting influence of greedy ambition.
Sylvia returns home, pale and with her clothes torn and ruined by pine pitch. The hunter and Mrs. Tilley question her and the moment has finally arrived for her to reveal the location of the white heron.
Sylvia’s physically damaged state reflects her troubled mind, showing the negative effects of gaining experience. This scene also builds up tension towards Sylvia’s climatic decision of whether or not to save the heron.
But Sylvia cannot speak, even as a worried Mrs. Tilley scolds her for disappearing and the hunter tries to persuade Sylvia with charming looks and promises of riches, pointing out that she and Mrs. Tilley are currently poor and he is “well worth making happy.”
Because of his materialism and his assumptions about the poverty of countryfolk, the hunter assumes that he can tempt Sylvia with money, that she too will value monetary wealth over nature.
Sylvia questions why she would give up her first worldly connection for the sake of a bird, but she remembers the “murmur of the pine’s green branches” and how she and the white heron watched the sea and the sunrise together. She knows she can’t reveal the white heron’s location if it means that the hunter will end the heron’s life.
The hunter represents all the advantages society and industrialization can offer, while the heron represents the purity and independence of nature. Though she is tempted by the hunter, Sylvia must ultimately make the moral choice to conserve nature.
The hunter leaves disappointed later that day, and for a long time afterwards, Sylvia still thinks of him on her nighttime walks driving Mistress Moolly home. She feels regret for the love she lost and the loyalty she betrayed by not telling him the white heron’s location.
After a while, Sylvia’s horror at the hunter shooting birds fades, forgetting how he left “their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood.” She questions whether her companionship with the birds is really worth losing the friendship she could have had with the hunter.
Sylvia’s regret has caused her to misremember parts of her past, thinking of her experience with the hunter as being more positive than it was. She doubts whether animal companionship can replace human relationships and the narrative does not fully resolve this conflict, showing the sacrifices one must make in conserving nature.
The narrator calls on the gifts and wonders of nature to compensate Sylvia for what she has lost, asking “woodlands and summer-time” to “bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!”