Dancing for their Dinner

“There must have been hundreds of birds above the old, granite-gray castle in the village center. As though the evening had caused the air to thicken, as though an invisible reagent of transformation had turned the empty space into one trembling with inspiration and craving life. It was as though some chemical, a precipitating element like phenolphthalein, had caused the air to thicken and crystallize into what it truly was–a solid shower of bodies eager to feel themselves fully alive. The twilit sky condensed into a thick cover of blended blues and reds, empirically attesting to the load-bearing capacity of the air. The birds, thus emerged, filled the sky with roaring curves, with buzzing arcs–their trajectories caused nothingness to thicken and to morph into flocks and fleets in passionate flight. I lay down on the edge of the village fountain and observed the sky’s love for itself.”

–Andreas Weber, Matter & Desire: An Erotic Ecology

A month ago I sat in the early morning, woken by the sun, in a nest of blankets in my friend’s boathouse at a cottage on Laurel Lake in northeastern Pennsylvania. The water was calm; my baby slept soundly, as I had, that sort of sleep that only occurs in such a place as this; we were so taken care-of, so loved by my college roommate and her family. I didn’t have to cook, clean, launder, or grocery shop; all that was left was to mother, to rest, to be.

Where the water on this morning was calm and solitary, the afternoon prior I had watched barn swallows dance, dive and weave over its shimmering surface. Weeks before I had watched the same sort of aerial ballet: swifts and swallows dancing and diving, sweeping and swooping over chimneys and rooftops as we ate terrace breakfasts and drank aperitivi on our friends’ apartment roofs, in a place and culture where beauty is of utmost importance.

I thought briefly of the chaos of my own home, the lack of grace with which I wrestle the necessities of the day into and out of the apartment, and into my family’s bellies. I thought about how rarely I manage to make it look beautiful, and how sparely I get the chance to create, to write something lovely or take a good, meandering hike.

But these birds. These tiny, powerful beings, sleek with their short feet and small, wide-hinged mouths. They make such lovely work of the act of sustaining life. Quite literally, they dance for their dinner.

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At Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, tree swallows are some of the first migratory songbirds to breed in the spring. They’re human-popular birds, easy on the eyes, tolerant of people and happy to nest right up close to a trail, often in human-constructed boxes specially made for the purpose. And their territories are small, which means more of these boxes can be clustered in a given area than with other box-nesting species, like bluebirds.

I remember these flirtatious little souls hopping from box to tree around the refuge’s West Pond Trail, glints of tropical blue like fireflies in the daytime. On one of my first days as a ranger there I grinned at a morning visitor, telling her, You might even see some tree swallows out there, as though this expert birder wouldn’t recognize, or might actually be excited by such a commonplace visitor. For sure she knew–but she grinned anyway. A good, true birder, I suppose, loves them all: common and exotic, large and small, resident and visitor. 

Swallows bring to mind and heart the following: ephemerality, presence, migration and return. I think about how writing, how living, sometimes must involve the storing up, the caching, and later the spending and expressing of these stored-up words and hopes.

“The swifts are an element of the air, but they are also an element of happiness. The swifts are the children of the air’s love for itself.”

-Andreas Weber, Matter & Desire: An Erotic Ecology

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2 thoughts on “Dancing for their Dinner

  1. Love your thoughts on swallows, Hilary!
    Thinking about grace and beauty: Sometimes we fail to see our own grace and beauty, so allow me to tell you how graceful you are to me–how gracefully you write, how gracefully you move through this world no matter where your path takes you. And beauty? I see you surrounded by beauty–you create beauty by your very presence, by your personal style. So, though perhaps it is difficult for you to see, allow the rest of us to mirror your beauty and grace back to you.

    Like

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