Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Vaux's Swifts

Thousands of swifts. They come in bands of thirty or forty, vaux's swifts, sillhouettes against the mirror-colored twilight sky. The firstcomers attract little notice, but I watch their company floating in. Each bird darts rapidly this way and that, but the band as a whole makes slow, deliberate undulations through the sky.

Every so often a new band arrives, and joins in. They circle the fields for nearly an hour, sometimes right over our heads, sometime so far from us that they're only tiny black grains swirling on the horizon.

There are currents and eddies, but the main flow is a great counterclockwise wheel, with the tall brick chimney of Chapman School as its free axis.

The eye attempts to deal with it in different ways. It follows one particular swift, zigzagging its way -- hunting, I'd suppose, except that they're so far up. Are there insects way up there? Or do they simply move in those rapid darts by habit? I succeed a couple times in following one swift's complete circuit. Its motions are eager. The swifts may be coming to the end of a long working day, but there's no trace of weariness to be seen in them. The overwhelming impression they give is one of joy and exultation. "Airy worlds of delight" -- is that what Blake said?

The eye gives up tracking, but it can't give up tracking, so next it follows a whole moving mass of swifts, the ones making the near turn. They swarm randomly, like bees, but there's a current to them. Behind them the ones making the far turn are distant blurs moving the opposite way. But soon the near ones are the distant ones, and with a drunken lurch the eye's focus involuntarily switches to the ones that are near now; it conveys the deeply disorienting conviction that the revolving sky has abruptly changed directions. A person could get seasick, watching them. Finally the eye relaxes and sees simply a wavering and shimmering in the evening sky.

It seems that each swift, at some point in its circle, ducks inward to make a reconnaissance of the chimney. There's a steady stream of them slowing, dropping down over it, bobbing down for one quick glance, and then climbing back into the great wheel. As evening draws down so do the swifts, tightening the wheel, and the scouting stream grows thicker and slower. I keep thinking they have begun to actually vanish into the chimney, but then I keep looking up at the sky, and there are, if anything, more swifts than before. Are they going in and coming back out? It's impossible to tell.

Eventually it's clear that they are going in. It's not nearly so defined as I had imagined: I'm only really sure because the cloud of birds is clearly diminishing. It's hard to imagine what the interior of the chimney must be like now. It's a huge chimney, but the birds must be packed into its interior shoulder to shoulder, clear down to the bottom. Are there favorite spots? Do they quarrel over them? Are some swifts more equal than other swifts?

All that warmth in the dark, all those tiny rapidly beating hearts. I imagine the outermost ones periodically wriggling down, throughout the night, to get warm, and the inmost ones struggling out to the cool air. Do they speak to each other, or is it all done in dreamy silence?

The nearly-full moon rises over the trees as the last few swifts settle in. There is no defined ending point. Even after we think they're done, a few late-comers are trickling over the brim of the chimney. I'm not sure if they have really stopped, at last, or if it has it simply gotten too dark to see them.

Around us, the crowd gradually disperses, folding their blankets, packing up their wine glasses. The kids, who had been determinedly sledding down the grassy slope on collapsed cardboard boxes, are cold now, snuggling up to their mothers, gleaning the last picnic treats. People are hugging. I'm curious to see if my colleagues will hug goodbye. We're celebrating reaching our four-year fundraising goal, a goal considered quixotically large, four years ago, but which we've reached handily. We toasted ourselves with champagne.

They don't hug, for the most part. Only four, after all, have been working together for more than few months. But the big-gifts person and the grant writer walk with their arms around each other down the hill. They've been working together for years now. I'm happy to see that.

At the bottom of the hill, we reach Faith's bicycle. I hug Faith. She's well bundled up in varied layers of cotton and wool, and wearing a knit hat molded to her head like an aviator's. The whole effect wavers between girlish and old-womanish. I am, as always, terribly fond of her: she evokes an almost painful tenderness in me. She is the analytic person, the tracker, the maker of procedures and policies, the indispensable lieutenant -- innovative and decisive, always cogent, always master of the relevant details, always problem-solving. There is nothing girlish about her, really, so I can't account for why I feel so protective of her. But I do.

I drive the grant writer home and come home myself, alighting in my own chimney. It's the turning of the year. The swifts, I understand, will be on their way to Venezuela soon.

Godspeed. Wayfarers all.

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