“One Swallow Does Not a Summer Make, neither does one fine day”
I never knew, until googling it now – that this saying is attributed to Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)
The Oxford Dictionary says this of the Swallows saying:proverb: A single fortunate event doesn’t mean that what follows will also be good.
It seems to me that swallows are as excited as us, on their arrival in Britain, each summer. Not surprising, as they have flown six thousand miles in six weeks – including over the bird-unfriendly Sahara Desert.
Swallows love sitting on telegraph wires and chattering. Then swooping through the air – flying for the pure joy of it, I always think, even though I know they are following the currents of insects. And hence, I guess, the other saying about swallows: flying high suggests good weather, and flying low suggests rain-to-come.
I watch them following each other as if in a Battle of Britain dogfight – I’m not sure if it is understood why they do this: whether it is bravado/ courting, something to do with slipstream and energy-saving, or what.
I find I don’t need to know everything, which is lucky – as an answer will always beget a dozen more questions – I don’t know about you, I just love watching, admiring and questioning: it keeps my little grey cells fit and well…
Swallows have adapted well to living in our towns and cities, along with House-martins. They are also the soundtrack to many a Mediterranean holiday… This blog is part of the Urban Birds Project. More details here
Matthew Oates, in his newest book BEYOND SPRING: Wanderings through Nature (The only place you will be able to buy a hardback copy of this book, for only £15, is via this link, and only until 29 May 2017), writes the following in his chapter entitled Through The Glass Darkly, written: Great Western Railway to London Paddington, April 13th
I have chosen this chapter mainly because of its message which reflects the overall message of Matthew’s book; which is also the underlying hope of this Urban Birds project too – to celebrate our connection with Nature, to recognise our mental-health need to take notice of Nature, to remember that humans are a part of Nature – not apart from it, to encourage further re-establishment with it; as well as its fleeting mention of Swallow.
As Fair Acre Press is publishing this book – here is the whole chapter (minus the poetry quotes). My heart is bursting with joy over Matthew’s book – I sense it marks a huge leap forwards in Nature-writing, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do…:
We increasingly experience nature and the great outdoors through windows, as we hurtle through landscapes at ever-increasing speed. As speed increases so the glass – or Perspex – strengthens, and in doing so allows something dark and distancing to strengthen its grip on us. Our sense of detachment increases and normalises, so that viewing – experiencing is the wrong word – becomes a passing interest, lacking any vestige of true involvement. At best we have some petty experience, but grasp little of its meaning.
But in mid-April so much hurtles by anyway, whether we’re in a car, on a train, or actually out there in the real world, the wild. The pace gathers as spring intensifies. It is a hurly-burly time. Bacchus and his Maenads run riot.
My intercity train flashed by the first leafing oaks, the last of the puritanical Blackthorn blossom, sallow blossom, rookeries a tree-top, fields sown with spring crops, hares and ascending larks, and gardens that hinted of summertime. It all looked so idyllic, even the vast acreages of oilseed rape seemed natural, for at speed and through the mindset of the screen one cannot tell true gold from false. Even a field sprayed with herbicide to kill off agricultural black grass deceitfully flashed an alluring burnt umber under the April sun.
The Perspex screen distorts our experience, and so confuses us. It is perhaps yet another manifestation of how distorted our relationship with Nature has become. Even the sense of distance is altered by speed and glass, so that the landscape seems almost two-dimensional. And we cannot hear the birdsong or smell the blossom, let alone breathe in the energising spring air: in a train carriage one is treated to the Te Deum of businessmen on mobile phones and whiffs of the acrid scent of train brakes.
In effect, the more we hurtle through landscapes, seeing transient vistas at random, the more nature becomes something to which we falsely relate; and the more we become trapped in a sanitised bubble behind the Perspex screen.
The railway cutting banks were littered with the trunks and branches of trees and bushes felled primarily to facilitate the electrification of the line between Bristol and London, but also to prevent that most catastrophic of commuter train events – namely, delays caused by leaves on the line; for nature had been slowing us down, by littering the line with fallen leaves, in autumn no less, when the nation is gearing up for that most important of economic events, Christmas. So trunks, branches, lop and top, brash and brushwood, were all being left to rot. Time to look down at one’s reading material.
And on this April day people were not out in the sunshine, looking out for the Swallows that were arriving, or listening to the drone of bumblebees that tell of timeless summer days to come. Not even a child. They were all in buildings – houses, offices, places of work, examination factory schools; or they were in vehicles, hurtling through landscapes as fast as they could, or stuck behind each other in mindless traffic jams.
All save one, who was on a London-bound train and was glued to the window, drinking in as much Nature through the thick screen as he could; projecting himself out there, to the other side of the Perspex screen, to the sunshine and amongst the unfurling leaves – into the real world.
Some reaction to the false imprisonment was necessary. It began with a toddler tantrum in Carriage F. The tantrum intensified, reaching Storm Force Ten, and spread to another small child, in carriage E; and so on, until every carriage was screaming. The message, translated out of baby babble, was simple: we are trying to live a lifestyle we were not designed to live.
Children must lead the rebellion.
I love this poem, by Keith Chandler – one of my all-time-favourite poets, and have included an extract in Matthew’s book, along with several other living poets, as well as the old, dead, favourites like Edward Thomas and Wordsworth:
Swallows by Keith Chandler
Each year you come
glissading down the sky like a skier
with a braking half-turn round the Abbey
back to this house, its timbered cliff.
Different to our garden hoppers
those racing lines, sweptback, rakish.
Tired at first, you cling to the aerial
careening your feathers of journeyman dust.
Are you the pair who a summer back
raised ditto broods? We cannot tell:
your swallowtail coats look alike to us,
blood coloured chokers at the throat.
Do you see how sad I am this year?
No, you do not, but with a flick
you’re off, to skirr the incumbent cloud
for gnats, to barrel-vault the sky.
Motley chatterer, always on the line
or in the powder room of the storm
for all your gossip you have nothing to say.
To keep coming, going is your game.
Wide verandah or corrugated shack
you treat us below you the same
so long as we offer the right angled ledge
from which to drupe your adobe abode.
You have no time, hovering
attendance on a gallery of throats
gaping for more; their eavesdroppings
writhe whitely down our overhang.
Fetching subsistence from the sun
or slipstreaming through the osiers
with kissing sip, you do what you must
all summer long for Joy, it seems.
Until, exercising your tails
like a crowd of Geordie supporters
waiting for an Away Special
flexing their black and white scarves,
beading the wires like an abacus
or like notes in a Mozart manuscript
spiralling clear of the stave,
the young still making trial flights,
like yet distinct from all these,
excited you’re ready for the off.
Following the yo-yo pull of light
come back next year!
and here is a poem about swallows that I wrote for a Bridgnorth Writer’s Group project on the Olympics, in 2012:
Where’s my gold medal? by Nadia Kingsley
Where’s my gold medal? twitters the swallow
resting, balancing, one moment on a wire
as the elite compete in the Olympic Stadium.
Look at their fastest sprinters. I could do that
to the end and back in the time it takes them.
The roar of the crowd would be deafening.
Here are the marathon runners, on their last legs.
I fly over the Sahara twice, every year of my life
more than two hundred miles a day, for six weeks.
And relay races? My mate and I feed our chicks
four hundred times each light. Even our fledglings
we feed on the wing – now that takes endurance.
So where’s my gold medal? They’re just for humans
trills another. And with a warble they both dive
and twist, with beaks agape, to catch more insects.
Here is some “Swallow Art” I have come across online:
And here are a few links with some more information about Swallows:
This Blog is part of a series of Blogs that are part of the Fair Acre Press project – DIVERSIFLY: everyday encounters with the birds of Britain’s towns and cities. For more details on the project go here