September has gone and with it go the swallows. I last saw them on September 15th, strung along the telephone wires, motionless against the wind and the rain. With windscreen wipers beating a steady rhythm under sullen skies, I drove beside chains of swallow-shaped silhouettes hung like cut-out paper dolls.
Three days later I laboured up the same hill, this time on foot and this time under cerulean skies scattered with scudding cotton wool clouds. There was not a swallow to be seen. The busy chittering which has been the background accompaniment to dry airy days is replaced by louder, harsher cries. The wires are empty and the open skies behind the oak tree are filled not with a kaleidoscope of acrobats but a swathe of larger, darker shapes flying more slowly, more directly and to my eyes at least, with more purpose but less joy. There is a buoyant intimacy to the hirundines’ behaviour which the corvids cannot match and each have their season: summer for the swallows and autumn for the crows. The swallows are gone; the crows come again to the fore. The seasons pass.
Last night I read an extract from Melissa Harrison’s anthology: Autumn and my heart quickened as I scanned the familiar style of Gilbert White’s wonderful jottings.
This from 1792:
As most of the second brood of Hirundines are now out, the young on fine days congregate in considerable numbers on the church and the tower: & it is remarkable that tho’ the generality sit on the battlements and the roof, yet many bang or cling for some time by their claws against the surface of the walls in a manner not practised at any other time of their remaining with us. By far the greater number of these amusing birds are house-martins, not swallows, which congregate on trees. A writer in the Gent. Mag. supposes that the chilly mornings & evenings, at this decline of the year, begin to influence the feelings of the young broods; & that they cluster thus in hot sunshine to prevent their blood from being benumbed, & themselves from being reduced to a state of untimely torpidity.
I wish I could claim to make recordings of natural happenings as diligently and accurately as Gilbert White. Mine are more whimsical, less informed and infrequent. They happen only when something catches my fancy at a time when I have the inclination to record it. But Gilbert’s percipience sent me searching through the few notes I’d made of my own observations in recent weeks.
This from 2017:
I have just watched the swallows – large numbers of them circling and settling on the south-facing roof tiles of our house. I’ve not seen this before, in part no doubt because I’ve never been in the right place at the right time. They settle in a group, chattering and chittering with animated clicks and squeaks and general hubbub. Some birds waddle about within the group. They make me think of house martins with their cumbersome gait, and for all the world it seems like they are having a good old chinwag. Then as a body, at some invisible signal, off they go around the chimney and over the valley before returning once again to settle. I watched this happen several times. Swallows strung single-file along a wire is a familiar sight. Swallows gathering in a group for a gossip is new to me. It makes me smile. I can’t help imagining they are talking about the long flight ahead of them. Perhaps too, they are sunning themselves – a reminder of the warm sunshine that will be their reward when finally they reach those more clement climes. It won’t be long now before they leave us.
Below is neither swallow nor crow, but a buzzard soaring in endless empty skies as it would have done in the times of Gilbert White and every year since – just as the swallows gather and flutter and come and go with the passing of every year.
Watching a buzzard cruising the eddies never fails to remind me to slow, pause, and remember our small place on the earth.
There is a weight to the speed of modern life and the pace of change in the world. Sometimes it is good to reflect on that which seems changeless.