Swallows (The Narrow Road through the Deep North)

by David Brooks


I have just searched the Oxford English Dictionary – not the on-line version, but the two (huge) volume, ‘compact’ version I bought myself on special offer when I was a graduate student, beloved books now battered and torn from their bindings – for the word souciant and find that it is not there, nor (now that I have checked) in the on-line version. The reason I’ve looked is that, reading about cicadas the other day, I came across mention of them as a symbol of insouciance, of care-less-ness, of living for the day. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never heard, in English, the word souciance, as in care-full-ness, of living with care, rather than without it.

We have just come back from our annual all-too-brief sojourn in Slovenia. A kind of yearly migration, if you like, that we undertake when it is mid-winter in the Blue Mountains, not so much for the pleasure of it – though there are many pleasures – as because of a promise made to my wife’s parents, who live in a small village on top of a hill in Istria. While there this year I was involved in writing some rather dark and absorbing things: things, if you like, full of care, or reck (along with souciance, we don’t seem to have the word reckful, though recklessness is an active part of our vocabulary). Sometimes I think that these things, care, reck, souciance, are a part of most writers’ daily lives. There may be exceptions, but sometimes I feel as if, even in the most joyful things I write, there’s also a darkness, as if it were somehow a part of the process.

And sometimes – my point – I get a bit sick of it. I woke up one morning in Slovenia and wanted, suddenly, to write without it. A longing for lightness. And I thought, straight away, of the swallows. They’ve always been there, of course, every time we’ve gone, and I’ve watched them, and been delighted by them, many times. There’s a pool on the hill-top, and I lap-swim in it daily when the weather permits. And there are power-lines three or four metres up, alongside it. ???????????????????????????????The swallows gather on them while I swim – it’s as if we have the same thought at the same time – and wait, normally, until I finish, at which point, for twenty minutes or so, they do what I call their swallow-dance, swooping the water, sometimes – but not always – actually skimming the surface, then taking off in a wide circle to do it again, usually only half a dozen of them, sometimes twenty or thirty. Apparently swallows are famous for this. And last year, as if they had finally got used to me, they’d begin their dance while I was still swimming, on two or three magical occasions continuing as I stood still in the water at the end of the pool – flying directly at me as they left, making me a part of their scoop, veering off only at the last second. I say ‘magical’ and I mean it. I was entranced, exhilarated, lifted to another place.

A few years ago, watching the swallows at their darting and scooping from beside the pool, I conceived a haiku:

4pm, the hour
of the hundred swallows,
skimming the sky-coloured pool

It wasn’t as easy as it probably looks. In fact I took days, weeks even, since I kept coming back to it, trying to force it into a different shape. A haiku consists of a first line, of five syllables, a second, of seven, and a third, of five again. You can see this quite readily in one of the small haiku masterpieces of Basho (1644-94) [and read numerous translations of it]:

Furuike ya, kawazu tobikomu, mizu no oto.

Schools and sub-schools of haiku-writing have developed over the centuries. Some say that a haiku must have a reference to the season, others that it must have no semblance of rhyme anywhere in it, or that there should be no metaphor. And for some it shouldn’t or needn’t be a thing of three lines at all. I was surprised, for example, when I first read the haikus and haiku translations of Harold Stewart, that Australian poet, haiku-expert and hoaxer who lived for so long in Kyoto, to find that they were written in two long lines. You’ll notice, in any case, that my haiku above doesn’t confirm to either pattern: not two long lines, nor three lines of 5/7/5. But I’m not going to give an extended lesson in the haiku. The point is that I had my poem, that I tried in all sorts of ways to make it conform, and that eventually I let it be what it seemed to need to be, in and of itself. I won’t say that it hadn’t been changed or hardened – tempered – by the flirtation with tighter haiku form. Indeed in my experience the haiku-attempt can be a very good test to put a short poem through, a means of arriving at a kind of core or kernel.

Perhaps that’s why this haiku-like poem was followed fairly closely by a second:

How hard to write
the simplest things, these sabre-sharp wings
severing words from their stems.

– again breaking the 5/7/5 rule, and the rhyme rule, the season-reference rule, but trying to cut the words – and the poem – free, for its sake, and for the swallows’, or rather for mine, trying to see them. There’s a whole history in this tiny poem: my years teaching and wrestling with literary theory, the purported ‘prison house’ of language and what the poet is supposed to do about it, even perhaps my own daughter as a champion sabreuse (would I have thought of this image without her?).

And this year it’s as if I have begun to see the swallows a little better – although perhaps, to be honest, it began last year, and was as much a matter of not seeing as of seeing. I think one of the reasons the swallows love that Istrian hill-top is that one minute they can be darting about more or less at roof- or attic-level, only four or five metres above the ground, and the next can fly straight out valley-wards, and, without ascending at all, can be three hundred metres above the valley floor, feeding on the small insects the thermals have forced upward. And last year, sitting out on the balcony at near dusk after a hot day, when the heat haze hung over the valley, I saw first one and then another and another fly from just above me on the hill-top and, less than a hundred metres out over the valley, disappear into thin air. I had seen them fly out all the time, but what I hadn’t noticed – perhaps because it had never been so hot (climate change), or just because I hadn’t taken the time to see – was the way they can vanish like this. One second there and quite visible, the next just not. I could still see the other side of the valley; I could still see the clouds toward which they had been flying. But there was a heat- or haze-effect, a mirage. And then they would reappear, just as suddenly, out of the same nothing, twenty or thirty metres away from where they had entered it. Winged magicians, angels of the invisible, crossers of the impossible border.

illustration 3A year later that has come to seem just the beginning. I watched this disappearing act again with the same awe, but started, as I sat there writing and they darted about me, to notice other things too: how they can hover almost like humming-birds while they wait for a place to clear on a telephone-wire; how (‘sky-larking’!) the teenagers (I presume) enjoy flying hard, directly at a wall, only to veer off at the last second; how their tiny claws are so strong and their sense of balance so fine that they can cling to a vertical wall with nothing but a rough stucco surface for purchase; how what seems at first a monotonous chirping can reveal itself, if one is able to watch and listen unobserved (through the bathroom shutters!), to be nothing short of a gossip-session, accompanied by a wide range of shruggings, wing-flutterings, and movements from foot to foot, and interrupted only by the occasional neighbour or child coming to hover briefly in front of one or the other conversant, just long enough to – for certainly this is what it looked like – rub cheeks, in what anthropomorphically I could only think of as a swallow kiss.

And of course I remembered my earlier haikus, and wrote more, trying (as it so often seems) to wrap words around the inexpressible. This for the wall-hugging:

How do they do that,
the swallows – hold themselves so
flat against the wall?

and this for the wire-queue:

All morning, swallows
shuffling on the power-line,
a deck of blue cards.

and this – not a haiku but its longer and earlier cousin the tanka (five lines, of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables respectively, a development from the waka, the earliest Japanese form) – for the gossip and the kiss:

Above the valley
talking animatedly
two birds on a wire
and a third coming, going,
touching their faces in flight.

As to the disappearing, well, no haiku yet, though I think it underpins this one, again about the swallow-dance:

Day in and out, a
message of openness, un-
tying a great knot

No mention of swallows. Stretch the middle line forward, however (is this just my imagination?), and add more space between the lines, and something of the swallow is there, in the form itself, as if in the figure of the dance:

day in and out, a

message of openness, un-

tying a great knot

– swallow, or goose, or duck (the great Vs they make, in migration …).

Basho, in his great works – The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, for example, or The Narrow Road to the Deep North – mixed haiku with prose, in the manner of what we might now think of as haibun, a form that Basho (who is credited with the first use of the word) was literally inventing as he went.

As the title of The Narrow Road implies, his great works were travel sketches. When he died (on the 12th of October, I note to my surprise: this could almost be an anniversary essay), it was on a long journey into the south of Japan. A traveller, then, a migrator, if not migrant. He would describe, in prose, a place he had come to or an incident that had occurred along the road, and would follow it with a haiku. I used to think that these haiku were largely descriptive: re-presentations and condensations of the material that had just preceded them. But now, while still maintaining that they are these things, I see them somewhat differently, as a kind of counterbalancing, or window – holes, if you like, in potentia, in the prose of our thinking, a mode of attention.

The swallow – the barn swallow (hirundo rustica) – is a migratory bird, famous for its extraordinary spring and autumn journeys. We have swallows in Australia, of course – witness this nice passage, from Beverley Farmer’s A Body of Water, set near the entrance to Port Phillip Bay (many an early migrant’s first glimpse of Eastern Australia):

Sandstone is honeycomb in this still afternoon sun, pitted with swallows’ nests

But these are welcome swallows (hirundo neoxena), a species native to Australia and nearby islands. Welcome swallows migrate also, but, like a good many Australian humans, largely from Tasmania/Victoria up to Queensland (the Deep North) in autumn, and back down in spring. We do have barn swallows, too, which come down from northern Asia to winter on the far north coast anywhere from Port Hedland in the west to Brisbane in the east, though most of the Asian barn swallows finish their southward journey further north. The swallows I watch from my balcony in Istria or that dart about me in the pool mass for their southward migration and head off in late September. By my calculation these Istrian swallows – there have been route studies (by netting and banding the poor birds) – are of a group that fly first across northern Italy and then, since they don’t like crossing the sea, and so choose the shortest passages over it, leave the Italian coast near Follonica, just north of Grosseto, and fly over the narrow passage to the island of Elba (where Napoleon came to rest, and where, I note in appreciation, there’s a municipality in which every new house must have its swallow-hole, and be covered in swallow-friendly stucco), then fly along that island to the point of the shortest crossing to Corsica, along which they then fly southward to cross the even narrower Strait of Bonifacio to Sardinia, which they leave at its lowest tip, Capo Malfitano, to fly over the Mediterranean at one of its narrowest points, to the northernmost part of Tunisia, thence to make the long flight down over Africa, some to stop in the Central African Republic, some to continue right to the Cape of Good Hope.

It’s an astonishing journey, and a very dangerous one. There is not only the matter of the sea crossings, for example, or, despite innumerable rest-stops, the exhaustion, there is that of human predation. A correspondent to The Spectator of 1st June 1928, commenting upon a report that the new Fascist government in Italy was advocating protection of migrating swallows, describes a problem that is not greatly different today:

This would be good news to bird lovers, who deplore the wanton destruction of millions of birds every year in Italy on their migratory passage … But the truth is that the Fascist regime has done nothing to prevent the wholesale netting of birds which takes place in the autumn, and that the law which proclaims a closed season for the birds in May and June is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. During May this year the netting of swallows and martins went on as usual at Montecatini, and the same terrible toll will be taken of all migratory birds as they pass through Italy in the autumn. (http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/2nd-june-1928/18/the-protection-of-wild-birds-in-italy)

The route taken by the Istrian swallows is not the only option. Others, perhaps less wisely, fly overland right to the tip of Italy, cross to Sicily, and then either from its westernmost point across to Tunisia, or from its south-easternmost point across to Malta, and thence to Tunisia via the island of Lampedusa.

We know so much and yet almost nothing, about swallows and so much else in the natural world. For a long time swallows were regarded as legless birds that lived entirely in the air, since no one ever saw them on the ground. So much for observation. Thousands of years of cohabitation and our attention has been largely elsewhere, which is to say upon ourselves, as if we were all that mattered. We know the route of the swallows, more or less (although I sense that a lot of what I have just reported is guesswork), but almost nothing of how they do it: their systems of navigation, their race memory. We can’t even agree upon why the swallows dart and scoop over a pool. Is it play? Does it happen only before rain, when, as many have suggested, the barometric pressure drives small insects closer to the surface of the water (but what insects, over a well-chlorinated pool?)? Is it, as others have said, so that the birds may wash themselves? Yes, one bird or another will occasionally wash him-or herself, while others scoop and dart around them clearly not doing so. And yes, they will dart and scoop just before rain, but they will also do so after a hot day, with no rain in sight. They do seem to do so for a drink, especially in the heat, but they will also – most – swoop just for the fun of it. And it’s also possible, surely, that there is an element of serious preparation within their play. They are just about to undertake a long water crossing. Could they be practicing? Training their young?

Even the fact of their migration is fairly new to us. In a book published in 1788 – the year that Australia was invaded by its first wave of white immigrants, boat-people if ever there were – and that has long been held up as one of the masterpieces of nature writing, The Natural History of Shelbourne, Gilbert White, musing on the vexed question of where the swallows go in the winter, reports suggestions that they hibernate in tunnels deep in cliff faces, or that they burrow under rivers. Which is not to disparage him (he knew they migrated). If we can put aside his disturbing habit of shooting birds so that he can better describe them, White’s book is also full of keen and fascinated observation, and belongs (just) to an age in which speculation and imagination were a significant part of one’s thinking and experience of the natural, so that it can still shimmer fresh and somehow magical after over two hundred years. Which can’t, after all, be such a bad thing. I have often wondered if part of the subsequent acceptance and valorisation of science has not been an abandonment to it, as in a relinquishment of a sense that there is some point in one’s own thinking, observation and imagination about the world around one, a kind of attrition of attention that has distanced us from and desensitised us to the things and creatures we live amongst, not to say a loss of wonder.

Speaking of which (i.e. of wonder), I should note before finishing that one of Australia’s finest poems (some have spoken of it as a kind of anthem), A.D. Hope’s “The Death of the Bird”, puts us – our non-indigenous, at least – in the frame of migratory birds (“For every bird there is this last migration: / Once more the cooling year kindles her heart; / With a warm passage to the summer station / Love pricks the course in lights across the chart”). A rosy glow, despite the bird’s demise. A great many migrants to Australia have had no chance of returning, even if it were safe to do so. But that – because it is not safe to do so – is why they attempted to come in the first place, and died in that attempt. I note that just eight days ago (I write this on October 12th) the government of Italy declared a national day of mourning for three hundred and fifty African asylum seekers – swallows, of a sort – who died when their boat caught fire off the coast of Lampedusa, and just three days after nearly fifty asylum seekers bound for Christmas Island (Australia’s Lampedusa) drowned when their boat capsized just fifty metres off the coast of Java. No national day of mourning declared in Australia – or Indonesia, for that matter – and I won’t hold my breath for one, for that or a dozen other similar tragedies that have occurred of late. We suffer compassion fatigue. The immigrants hold off the immigrants. And now, today, the 319th anniversary of the death of Basho as he travelled south, another report, of thirty or more would-be illegal immigrants drowning when their boat capsized, last night, again off Lampedusa.

But that’s too blunt, too souciant. To conclude I’ll offer something different. Hope’s poem was written after he’d read an article about the annual migration, not of swallows, but of starlings, ‘from Canada to Venezuela via Virginia’. Doing a little starling-research myself, I came upon the following extraordinary videos, my gift, in thanks, to anyone who has made it through to the end of this longer-than-intended piece:

Starling Research Video 1
Starling Research Video 2
Starling Research Video 3

2 thoughts on “Swallows (The Narrow Road through the Deep North)

  1. Thank you, David. A wonderful piece and then the videos. I had never heard the word ‘murmuration’ until, perhaps, a year ago when I saw it in reference to starlings preparing for migration. Swathes of starlings billow and fall on the edge of air. Truly awe-inspiring.

  2. Thank you, David. A wonderful piece and then the videos. I had not heard the word ‘murmuration’ until, perhaps, a year ago when I saw it in reference to starlings preparing to migrate.

    Swathes of starlings billow and fall on the knife edge of air.

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