Sunday, 17 May 2009

Shadow to shadow

The swifts have been back in Oxford for two or three weeks now, especially around the Museum of Natural History where the tower is filled with specially designed swift boxes. I often pass by on my way to visit Eran’s office and look out for the birds circling above the science departments. You can even see inside the nest boxes on this webcam. As they don’t yet appear to have laid eggs the scenes are mostly rather dull (feathers in a box) but I’ve just logged on to see two swifts snuggling up together. Here they are.

Swifts’ comfort in the air is legendary: after fledging they will not land for three years, not even to perch on wire like swallows (they don't have sufficiently developed legs), not to sleep and not even to mate. They do everything in the sky, which is their element as water is to fish. They only land to nest when they set up their homes inside roofs. So seeing the swifts resting like this makes me wonder, is it a delicious relief to settle down in the nest box and fold up their wings for the first time since fledging? Or perhaps they’re uneasy out of the air and excited to get back to it when breeding is done.

There’s an evocative chapter on the wildness of swifts in Michael McCarthy’s new book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo and their shrieking exhilaration when flying. McCarthy points out that swifts are relatively neglected in myths and folklore, perhaps because their air-borne life is so distant from us, but they suddenly appear in twentieth-century art, especially symbolically within poetry. Hughes (in ‘Swifts’) gives us an idea about why:

             … They’ve made it again,

Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s

Still waking refreshed, our summer’s

Still all to come –

                                    And here they are, here they are again…

 Maybe we’re drawn to them partly because of their wildness (‘Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy’), but there’s also the vulnerability, as Richard Mabey describes in Nature Cure. Swift populations fell in Britain by 41% between 1994 and 2007 – a fearsomely rapid decline.

Hughes wrote a series of creation poems called Adam and the Sacred Nine in which he described different species of birds coming to Adam with gifts showing him how to live. They are obliquely described, essentially the birds' own natures. Adam has to decide whether to accept or reject those gifts. 

A few lines from ‘The Swift comes the swift’ retrospectively carry an unintended suggestion of the main threat (global warming, us rejecting the gifts), but much beside that:

            Till the Swift

            Who falls out of the blindness, swims up

            From the molten, rejoins itself


            Shadow to shadow – resumes proof, nests

            Papery ashes

            Of the uncontainable burning.

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