Saturday, March 20, 2010

The day of the swallows


On August 4, 2009, in my bird journal I wrote: "Many broken and fallen tree limbs along road approaching nature center from storms earlier in the day. I could feel the season changing -- the mix of birds, the bird songs, quite different even than a month ago. Did not hear a single dickcissel or blackbird, but there were hundreds of swallows swooping overhead, the sound of their twitterings. Except for the aerial ballet of the swallows, everything felt very still."

It was late afternoon. I went to Sugar Grove Nature Center (a wonderful place to visit in McLean County, for birding excursions or nature walks) after work. In the morning, there had been incredible storms: the sky literally becoming dark, so that, looking out the window, it really did seem like night. And then the rain began, moving in like a wall, the winds tearing at trees and ripping off branches with steely abandon. I am not afraid of storms. It was exhilarating. I stood by the door of my work place, fascinated and unable to settle down to my daily routine. How could I? There was darkness at noon and a driving wall of rain!

By late afternoon, the storm had passed, and the sun appeared, so I went out for a stroll in nature, which is the best way to shake off the work day that I know of. It had been an incredible spring and summer, birding-wise. I had learned to recognize all the most common song-birds in the area: indigo buntings, song and field sparrows, common yellowthroats, catbirds, towhees, meadowlarks, dickcissels. Everywhere I went, they announced their presence.

And then on this day...silence. Stillness. Except for the barn swallows. I had never seen so many of them in one place, easily hundreds of them swooping overhead. It was beautiful but, combined with all that I wasn't seeing and hearing, also somehow ominous. There was a feeling of gathering energy, something inward and powerful, like the horizons when dusk is spilling out across the fields. The season was ending.

Of course, I saw many nice birds through the remainder of the the summer and the fall, including winter wrens (a life bird!), and two excellent views of black-throated blue warblers, and the wonderful fall flocks of sparrows and kinglets; but even all of that could only partially console me in the fact that each week, fewer of the summer birds sang: the buntings, the towhees, the catbirds,the dickcissels, all fell silent. And left.

Previously, I had always looked forward to fall, and even early winter (before the cold and snow just gets tiresome)-- in fact, these had been my favorite times of year: the lovely fall colors, the first crisp, cool days, the crunch of leaves underfoot, and then the first snow-fall, I had loved all of this, and resented whenever I lived in climates that did not have all "the seasons." But this time, I resented fall. I felt depressed. I wanted my birds back! It felt like they would never return.

I don't know what inspired this fit of melancholy--perhaps the realization that, as I get older, that each year, as it passes, really is over, that my life is finite, the summer chorus will not last. Or perhaps it is bigger than just me, and my trite intimations of mortality: the earth itself, the terrible damage being inflicted upon it, are also in my mind. For so many birds, not only the individuals with their grueling migrations ahead, but entire species, one after another, around the world...are falling silent. Are leaving the world. And I don't want them to go.

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