Swan’s Way – March 2014

The Swan’s Way – A Miracle of Time

Tundra Swans at Yolo Basin
Tundra Swans at Yolo Basin – from a photo by the author

One of the miracles of our lives is that there is so much unknown history behind us. This is true of other species as well. Some of them have tens of millions of years in their making. We of course so far trace our species back about 4 million or so, which makes us mere babies. No wonder we don’t know how to take care of our home. Perhaps we shouldn’t be in charge!

This line of ancestry is a miracle because like many miracles it seems both significant and useless. What difference does it make? Who knows. But tell me – when you see a photograph of million-year-old human footprints in primordial mud, doesn’t your very flesh prickle with deep astonishment?

We don’t think about it much, and alas it hasn’t made us kinder toward our fellow travelers on the planet, those animals whom Henry Beston described as “other nations.” Every now and then, though, we do remember.

Last year, I found a photograph of a necklace of bone birds found in a grave some 22,000 years old. There were six of these birds, described as geese, and the burial was a that of a young boy. The leather thong joining the birds had long melted away, but they still lay in formation, the flying V we know so well, the mark the geese and their kin.

Carved Bone Necklace, circa 22,000 Years Ago
Carved Bone Necklace, circa 22,000 Years Ago

These figures, crude but evocative, move me. I can see humans staring up; in my mind’s ear, I hear those calls that welcome spring or announce the arrival of winter. The sounds herald food, they herald warm down and comfort; they are themselves rhythm. The rhythm of seasons, of passing time. Our struggling ancestors surely recognized an approaching richness.

This pull of our ancient past always draws me to the wetlands in spring and winter. Recently I went to the Yolo Basin By-Pass near Sacramento, to the wildlife refuge there. I was looking for Snow Geese, which winter there in great flocks, often in the thousands. What I found this time, however, was swans. The Tundra Swan also winters here, unmistakeable as huge patches of brilliant brightness against blue water and brown reeds. They are startling: their necks are impossibly long, their bodies thick and heavy. The rushing of their wings is louder even than wetland winds, if they are flying close overhead. They themselves are not the musicians the geese are, but make a kind of soft burbling, surprising in such a big bird. Once down in the water, they seem reluctant to fly away. Such effort, such straining. Let’s tarry awhile, let’s eat! Swimming or flying swans are regal. Between these extremes, they are mechanically unsound! So usually they find open water near the reed beds they need, as far away from roads or paths as they can get. And there they seem to take over. And stay.

These were closer to a road than usual, and I took pictures for awhile, and simply watched. Then, finally, at some signal among themselves, they began to flap, then to lurch, then to run on the water, and finally they launched themselves, like bomber clouds, into the air. Once they had sufficient air under their wings, they rose rapidly, and as they passed over me, I saw – the necklace birds! Those carvings are not geese at all. They are swans! Look at the necks and heads – and the heavy bodies and short wings. Swans, for sure. Eons ago, a loving parent perhaps made a necklace of swan shapes for her child, and when that child died, she put his precious gift about his neck, to guide and accompany him in his own journey away from the Earth.

A miracle touch of love from thousands of years ago.


Swans Taking Off
Tundra Swans Taking Off, Yolo Basin, California


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