Nine-year-old Sylvia has come from the city to live in the Maine woods with her grandmother, Mrs. Tilley. As the story begins, Sylvia has been living with her grandmother for nearly a year, learning to adapt to country ways. She helps the old woman by taking over some of the more manual jobs, such as finding Mistress Moolly, the cow, each evening in the fields where she grazes and bringing her home. By means of this and other tasks, along with her explorations in the forest, Sylvia has become a country girl who dearly loves her new home. She has taken to it easily and immerses herself in her new life completely, as evidenced by the description of her journey home each evening with the cow: “Their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.” One evening she is approached by a hunter, who is in the area looking for birds to shoot and preserve for his collection. This young man is searching in particular for the rare white heron, and he is sure that it makes its nest in the vicinity. He accompanies Sylvia on her way with hopes of spending the night at her grandmother’s house. Once he has received this invitation, he makes himself at home. After they eat, he says that he will give a sum of money to anyone who can lead him to the white heron. The next day Sylvia accompanies the hunter into the forest as he searches for the bird’s nest, but he does not find it. Early the following morning, the girl decides to go out and look for the bird by herself so that she can be sure of showing the hunter its exact location when he awakes. She decides to climb the tallest tree in the forest so that she can see the entire countryside, and she finds the heron, just as she had thought she would. This is the critical passage of the story. When Sylvia climbs the tree as a bird might, she arrives at an epiphany at the tree's top. High as a bird, she has broken free of the world beneath and "becomes" the heron. But Sylvia is so affected by her leaf-top observation of the heron and other wildlife that she cannot bring herself to disclose the heron's location to the hunter after all, despite his entreaties. Sylvia knows that she would be awarded much-needed money for directing him to the heron, but she decides that she can play no part in bringing about the bird's death. The hunter eventually departs without his prize. Sylvia grows up to ponder if her choice to conceal the heron's secret was a better choice than to receive the young man's money and friendship. The author states that the treasures Sylvia might have lost are easily forgotten among the splendors of the woodland.
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