Sunday, July 24, 2011
Harbingers of fall
Today it rained. Not just a little: everything turned dark, lightning crackled, the skies poured forth. And then--it was cooler! It felt like a normal summer day instead of the taste of the Inferno we've been experiencing all week.
I shot off my couch as soon as the rain stopped, leaving Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the DVD player to resume her fights later, and called for my dogs who, unlike my husband, are always ready for a stroll. I was so excited at the reprieve from our steamy weather that, once the dogs had gotten some exercise, I thought I might actually go out and do a little birding!
But first: dogs. I walked them down to the graveyard (Am I morbid? It's my favorite place in town) beneath a blanket of bruised clouds. And when I arrived, there were swallows. Not just a dozen or so, as I'd been noticing throughout the summer.
It felt like hundreds, swooping and chittering, sometimes getting quite close to me as they passed by. I stared at them, utterly enchanted. I love birds--all birds, really: I will happily watch house sparrows or pigeons in a park downtown if nothing more exotic is around. But some birds are special; and for me, swallows are definitely in my top ten.
The dogs strained at their leashes, ready to move on, but I insisted on standing a few minutes longer. Combined with the moody crepuscule created by the overcast sky, the aerial dance of the swallows made me feel transported. It was almost otherwordly--although now I find it strange that I tend to use the word "other"worldly when what I really mean to describe is a moment when the beauty of this world has become inescapable.
I walked on in a daze. A chipping sparrow landed on the grass before me; in the distance, a kingbird perched on a gravestone. And overhead, the swallows! I hate to go all mystical on you, but it was one of those moments where I felt that the doors of perception had been opened to me. A hundred swallows overhead will do that to me, every time.
Then I heard a clap of thunder, and hurried back home as fast as I could with the dogs. And how quickly transcendence segues into farce: one dog would loiter behind me, sniffing intently at something, while the other pulled ahead. (Which dog did which varied.) Or, one dog (usually Raven, my cocker spaniel) would somehow wrap itself up in its leash, while the other ran circles around my legs. Or one dog (again, usually Raven) would stop dead in its tracks right before me, causing me to trip over it or (once--sorry!) step on its big galumphing feet! Meanwhile, incipient rain led to sprinkles which led to a downpour which led to three drenched mammals, two of which dried themselves off all over the furniture as soon as we got home while the third (that would be me) chased them around with a towel.
But back to the swallows. Thanks to the past few years of birding intently, I have come to recognize the Gathering of Swallows as the first harbinger of fall. It sure does look and feel like the middle of summer, but the season is actually already shifting ahead. The peeps are already coming through and the first fall warblers are only a month away. That's the good news. Across the fields and prairies, my summer friends are, over the next few weeks, going to fall silent and start to leave. That's the bad.
Normally this is a melancholy time for me. All the summer birds that I have come to love--some of them as individuals, as I learn where a particular eastern towhee can be found singing out, Drink your tea!, or a family of catbirds I have been enjoying by my work place pond. The blackbirds, the dickcissels, the meadowlarks and yellowthroats: all soon to depart. I just wish I could keep them all safe, somehow! Also, I'm the kind of person who cries whenever I watch Winged Migration -- and not at the sad parts, either. I cry because it's just so damn beautiful and so damn fragile and there's no way I can show my awe in the face of it except through tears. (Full disclosure--I'm tearing up a little right now, just thinking about it.)
This year, however, the hot weather has mitigated a lot of my summer sadness. Of course, I'll miss my nesting birds. But, with the heat, I didn't really get to enjoy them much. Instead of going out several times a week, I've averaged about every other weekend. To be honest, I'm really looking forward to fall. First the warblers, while it still feels like summer. Then the chilly mornings, and sparrows and kinglets coming through. Grackles and blackbirds in immense flocks. Finally the crispness of late autumn, and the juncos return.
No matter how old I get, I still find the turn of the seasons an endless source of wonder. As for now, it is still summer. But today I noticed the first harbinger of fall.