Posts Tagged ‘swifts’

Quote of the day: SWIFTS

August 2, 2020

SWIFTS

Swifts are magical in the manner of all things that exist just a little beyond understanding. Once they were called the “Devil’s bird,” perhaps because those screaming flocks of black crosses around churches seemed pulled from darkness, not light. But to me, they are creatures of the upper air, and of their nature unintelligible, which makes them more akin to angels. Unlike all other birds I knew as a child, they never descended to the ground.

When I was young, I was frustrated that there was no way for me to know them better. They were so fast that it was impossible to focus on their facial expressions or watch them preen through binoculars. They were only ever flickering silhouettes at 30, 40, 50 miles an hour, a shoal of birds, a pouring sheaf of identical black grains against bright clouds. There was no way to tell one bird from another, nor to watch them do anything other than move from place to place, although sometimes, if the swifts were flying low over rooftops, I’d see one open its mouth, and that was truly uncanny, because the gape was huge, turning the bird into something uncomfortably like a miniature basking shark. Even so, watching them with the naked eye was rewarding in how it revealed the dynamism of what before was merely blankness. Swifts weigh about 1½ ounces, and their surfing and tacking against the pressures of oncoming air make visible the movings of the atmosphere.

They still seem to me the closest things to aliens on Earth. I’ve seen them up close now, held a live grounded adult in my hands before letting it fall back into the sky. You know those deep-sea fish dragged by nets from fathoms of blackness, how obvious it is that they aren’t supposed to exist where we are? The adult swift was like that in reverse. Its frame was tough and spare, and its feathers were bleached by the sun. Its eyes seemed unable to focus on me, as if it were an entity from an alternate universe whose senses couldn’t quite map onto our phenomenal world. Time ran differently for this creature. If you record swifts’ high-pitched, insistent screaming and slow it down to human speed, you can hear what their voices sound like as they speak to one another: a wild, bubbling, rising and falling call, something like the song of common loons….

“The best thing for being sad,” said T.H. White’s Merlyn, “is to learn something.” As my friend Christina says, all of us have to live our lives most of the time inside the protective structures that we have built; none of us can bear too much reality. And with the coronavirus pandemic’s terrifying grip on the globe, as so many of us cling desperately to the remnants of what we assumed would always be normality — sometimes in ways that put us, our loved ones and others in danger — my usual defenses against difficulty have begun to feel uncomfortably provisional and precarious.

Swifts have, of late, become my fable of community, teaching us about how to make right decisions in the face of oncoming bad weather. They aren’t always cresting the atmospheric boundary layer at dizzying heights; most of the time they are living below it in thick and complicated air. That’s where they feed and mate and bathe and drink and are. But to find out about the important things that will affect their lives, they must go higher to survey the wider scene, and there communicate with others about the larger forces impinging on their realm.

Not all of us need to make that climb, just as many swifts eschew their vesper flights because they are occupied with eggs and young — but surely some of us are required, by dint of flourishing life and the well-being of us all, to look clearly at the things that are so easily obscured by the everyday. To take time to see the things we need to set our courses toward or against; the things we need to think about to know what we should do next.

–Helen Macdonald, “The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down,” New York Times Magazine

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