The short story "A White Heron" tells of a girl named Sylvia who lives with her grandmother in the woods of Maine. While bringing the cow home, she comes across a tall young man who is hunting for a rare white heron. He wants to kill it and stuff it for his collection. He offers what to Sylvia is a lot of money if she will help him find the bird. Sylvia is motivated to help—not only for the things that she can buy with the money but also because she finds the young man attractive. Sylvia climbs the great pine tree so that she can find the hidden nest of the white heron, but she also considers climbing it a great adventure.
There is symbolism in the act of Sylvia climbing the tree, because, when she gets to the top, she has what might be described as a transcendental experience. This means an experience that goes beyond the normal into the extraordinary, supernatural, or spiritual. She locates the hidden nest of the elusive white heron, but she also sees the sun rising over the gold-specked sea, the white sails of ships and two hawks flying as well as woodlands, farms, churches, and villages for miles into the distance. She almost feels as if "she too could go flying away among the clouds."
This experience has a profound effect upon Sylvia. Although her first impulse is still to tell the hunter where the heron is, by the time she gets back she has changed her mind. She realizes that she has had an epiphany, or an illuminating realization:
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.
Like beauty, symbolism is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. In one way, the tree serves a function in the story. Climbing the great pine allows Sylvia to spot the white heron from high above the forest. She climbs the tree to find the heron's nest so that she can tell the hunter, thus pleasing him and earning the money her grandmother needs.
However, Sylvia's climb up the tree is quite difficult and dangerous, requiring much bravery and strength. Once she reaches the top, she experiences the natural beauty of the world in a way that she never would have known had she not made the climb. She leaves her own world and lives for a little while in the heron's world. What she sees and feels at the top of the pine tree changes Sylvia in a profound way, and she can no longer give the heron up to destruction at the hands of the hunter.
The fact that the story's climax concerns Sylvia climbing the pine tree suggests that it has a meaning greater than its literal fact. Sylvia's climb might be interpreted as her growing up, finding her own identity and values. This isn't easy, but the rewards are great. After climbing the great pine, Sylvia has realized something important about herself and how she will live her life.