Just as Sylvia must choose between nature and industrialization, she must choose between conservation and greed. Greed threatens the nature of the countryside (through industrialization, as well as through the hunter striving to possess the white heron as a trophy), but it also promises Sylvia material reward (in the form of the hunter’s bribe) for helping in this destruction. After witnessing the heron from the top of the old pine tree, Sylvia decides to reject the hunter’s offer in order to conserve the life of the heron. Jewett therefore shows how one must turn away from the societal greed that seeks to consume nature without limits and instead conserve one’s natural environment.
Jewett associates the hunter with materialism and greed, since he dedicates his life killing birds so that he can stuff and preserve them in his collection. His materialism is also apparent in his judgment of Mrs. Tilley’s simple farmstead. While he ultimately finds the house comfortable and well-kept, he initially fears the “dreary squalor” of “primitive housekeeping,” which shows his preference for finer comforts and his bias against poorer country people. The parallel between the hunter and materialism is cemented when he tries to use money to advance his interests: he offers Sylvia the (then) enormous sum of 10 dollars to help him find the heron, which assumes that Sylvia shares his materialistic values. He never imagines that nature might be more important to Sylvia than money.
While the hunter’s monetary bribe genuinely tempts Sylvia (she could buy many “wished-for treasures” with it), she ultimately chooses to value conservation over money. This is rooted in the attitude towards nature—one of exploring it rather than possessing it—that she and her uncle Dan (a “great wand’rer”) share. To them, they gain more “wealth” through exploring nature than possessing it, since nature gives them transcendent experiences of beauty, wisdom, and companionship. Jewett describes Sylvia’s observation of her natural environment from the top of the pine tree, for example, in glittering detail: she sees the sun’s “golden dazzle” on the sea, two “glorious” hawks flying close enough to see their soft feathers, and the “solemn” and magnificent heron in the marsh. From this great height, Sylvia cannot intervene in nature—she can only observe it—and she cherishes this experience of seeing nature’s unity, calling the view a “pageant of the world.”
Sylvia also gains moral insight from this experience. From this height, she can begin to see the perspective of birds, helping her to realize that they have independent lives and consciousnesses. Seeing the hawks from the air instead of the ground, for example, makes Sylvia feel that she, too, “could go flying away among the clouds.” This experience of seeing the resplendent beauty of nature and coming to appreciate the individual experiences of animals is the real “wealth” of nature, since it makes her realize that she loves the natural world too much to tell the hunter where the heron lives—and that it would be immoral to do so, since the heron is an independent creature.
Underscoring Jewett’s commitment to conservation over greed, the old pine tree that allows Sylvia her transcendent experience of nature only exists because of an act of conservation. The tree is the tallest in the forest because it is the only old-growth tree that loggers spared when they cut down the forest years ago. This associates the tree explicitly with conservation. Not coincidentally, this conserved tree is essential to Sylvia’s moral growth, since it literally enables her to find a new perspective on nature. By providing her with joy and wisdom, the conserved pine tree allows Sylvia to find the moral conviction to choose her experience with nature over the hunter’s desire to possess it.
The tree’s association with conservation points to the moral importance of conservation. While greed threatens to the destroy the natural world (through the hunter’s greed for the heron’s life, his bribe for help finding the bird, and through the industrialization that the hunter represents), Sylvia comes to recognize the beauty, knowledge, and freedom that make nature worth conserving. Overall, Jewett argues that nature should be conserved against the destructive ambitions of human greed.
Conservation vs. Greed ThemeTracker
Conservation vs. Greed Quotes in A White Heron
It was a surprise to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness.
“I am making a collection of birds myself…there are two or three very rare ones I have been hunting for these five years. I mean to get them on my own ground if they can be found.”
Sylvia still watched the toad, not divining, as she might have done at some calmer time, that the creature wished to get to its hole under the doorstep…No amount of thought, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy.
All day long he did not once make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough…she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much.
Half a mile from home…a great pine-tree stood, the last of its generation…the woodchoppers who had felled its mates were dead and gone long ago…if one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world?
Yes, there was the sea with the dawning sun making a golden dazzle over it, and toward that glorious east flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions…Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds.
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.