Pressure ice upon the Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1989.
Downy feathers of snowflakes are falling like lost children from the sky this evening. It is the first snowfall this year. More than likely it is but a whim and the morning will find the earth as bare and dry as weeks gone by. But a lone Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) sits alone upon a bare branch of the False Acacia outside my window, awaiting the passage of light, hunched into her puff of feathers, her tiny head bare to snowflakes. I sit still, so as not to alarm her, and watch. It seems the moments together are filled with counting, all the way until she flicks her wings and flits away. The branch is left quivering in her sudden absence. And I find myself poised on the edge of my chair, alone in the gathering darkness, the air aswirl with children laughing.
So it is with birds, they come and go. If any creature could embody the movement of wanderlust, or the great rotation of the seasons, it must be birds. It seems that in the Beginning of Time, when some Speaker of Identities was handing out instructions on form and content, birds chose the way of airiness and elegance. To not be grounded, but to solve problems by carving away the extraneous, instead of throwing on more clay. The result was a marriage with the wind and a vision of distances, the planet beneath acting as springboard.
Earthbound that I am, I venture from my dwelling in the last dusting of winter, swiveling my head in lookout for the songs that had left with the dying of last year’s leaves. The voices come back in twos, catching the tops of the trees as buds form, and still tinkling with merriment from the warmer climes, like lovers newly returned from a honeymoon. Three, four, five, the old familiar faces are back, some directly to the memories of a summer gone. For those birds who remained behind, the ones that always shout louder than the others and shoulder through the delicate crowds, the return of the travelers shakes down the house of winter silence, and for a time the air quavers with indignation.
It is the return of the Barn Swallows, though, that barks, for me, of Spring fully arrived. Like liquid thought they barrel down the streets in fierce pleasure of, and concentration upon, clutching past arrival. Close-up their world seems to take on the rush at the terrible edge of a jet plane’s wing. Step back and Swallows love the open air, their wings scything the invisible. Even their eyes seem formed to look into the hard light and further, into the future, where their eggs lie.
Though I can’t understand a word of their language, the fluting and burbling and chittering of Swallow song always seems to speak of adventures and far off fields. It seems to beckon to my heart, just like the bugling of migrating geese, laughing and urging me to get out of this chair and lift my arms…
The brief summer harbors their laughter, has me on my tiptoes after the spell, sniffing out the salt sea or the undiscovered meadow. I would go with them, my mind seems to say, and it is time to prepare my travel bag. But that is the mistake right there. Swallows… all birds actually… have long done away with baggage. Their minds have been gleaned from aestheticism, from a total devotion to the task of flight. True travelers, believing in the brief encounter with all their hearts.
And come the chilly days of autumn I am again left behind, my legs feeling as leaden as tree trunks. The days commute to slumber, losing colors, bearing old grievances.
But my heart does beat more slowly than a bird’s. If I have wing beats, they echo in my footsteps. I may take longer to cross mountains, but the keening is there, to be off. Off and singing.