Summer is over. OK, that's not a news flash. It's been over for a while now. And I am sulking about it. Each weekend, I make myself some vague promises about going birding, and each weekend there's something unappealing about the weather. Today, for example, is gray, cold and windy. So I am not birding.
I usually have a birding slump in late fall/early winter, and then pick back up with renewed enthusiasm on January first, with the beginning of my Year List. This year, my slump just started a month or so early. In my defense, I've had a lot on my plate, with
But mostly, it's the time of year. The breeding birds have long since departed, with the fall migrants on their heels, and I always end up feeling like a guest who just hasn't figured out the party ended a few hours ago. Well, me and the juncos. They never get the hint.
In the spirit of sulking, I thought I'd share a poem I wrote about the end of summer. It seems like every year, ever since I noticed the flocking phenomenon, when I first notice that the summer sky is full of swallows preparing to depart, I run around in a tizzy, crying, "It's the Day of the Swallows! The breeding season is officially over!" Meanwhile, everyone stares at me like I'm crazy, since this happens some time in the beginning of August, which as far as everybody else is concerned, is clearly the middle of summer.
The Day of the Swallows
All summer long, soft mornings have cradled the
Woods and wetlands. On the prairie, the big bluestem
Blazes with the sun's first strike upon the dew. Now,
Full-throttle, life bursts into song:
Dick-dick-dickcissels, flinging their heads back,
Black triangles of attitude upon their throats;
And the sedge wrens, on weeds and stems, proclaim
Their provinces with songs like bouncing pebbles.
It's the orchestra of breeding birds: bandit masked
Yellowthroats crying witchedy-witchedy from the pond margins,
While a meadowlark, perched on a rotten fence post,
Shreds the air with his liquid see-you see-year. The Russian
Olives reveal a field sparrow, looping an extra whoop into
His ancestral trill, because he knows that this field is for
His kind, willing to sing for it, over and over.
Above: the swallows, disdaining the tangled grasses.
They don't even sing, simply chittering, swooping, self-assured.
After all, no legends speak of dickcissels, or of you,
The birder with your binoculars askew and your
Field guide handy. It is they who return to Capistrano every spring.
This is summer as Golden Age, life at its most exuberant.
You have forgotten the other seasons, and the eternal axiom of motion.
Until one evening, somewhere between midsummer and
The Equinox, you arrive to find the songs extinguished.
Birds hunker in the forbs, gobbling seeds or lazy insects.
No redwings shrug their superior epaulettes.
Perhaps a sheepish kingbird flutters down, or
A field sparrow trills, desultory.
You only glanced away for a moment.
And overhead, the sky is spangled with swallows, hundreds-fold.
They are skimming the season's ending, and will carry the songs
With them in their beaks, far to the South--the sparrows and the
Yellowthroats, the shy meadowlarks.
This year the prairie will not sing for you again.
Maybe they want to tell you not to blame the harbingers.
Do you really think that they, of all fragile creatures,
Asked for this? The long flight, the spinning dark, the imperative
To depart? We did not set this clock in motion, they might say. Not us.
There are so many of them, and gazing upwards, you become
Dizzy. Penitent. It happens like this every year, it seems--
You learned to pay attention just a day too late,
And now summer's over, swallows gathering in the dusk.