Flight of Being | Mark Goodwin

at cusp of    fledge        eyes to sky as        others of kind        call​

I was brought up on a farm in South Leicestershire, and since my childhood, some of the outbuildings have always ‘housed’, each summer, a certain kind of dweller, or rather I suppose, a certain kind of traveller. These beings made the dustbin shed a dangerous place to enter, or at least it seemed dangerous … because, more often than not as you opened the bottom half of the stable-door, the top half of which was always kept open, suddenly you would need to duck as a blurred

dark wing-edged missile
twanged past

skimming your crown …

It is just like that now – the swallows are still there at Lodge Farm, in the summer. And I, like many others, have come to know swallows as being the chirrups-&-clicks and flitting flow-visions of a particular summer place …

An intimacy of sorts. Swallows zooming the corners of the cobbled yard and then banking up into the wide summer blues above. You could never get near them – all speed & agility – and yet that fast distance they carry or project … that was, and still is, a kind of unique nearness, a bringing in of the far …

And as a child I could only vaguely imagine far-off South Africa, and how it might feel to fly and weather the long sky-hours crossing continents to that unknown ‘there’ … and then again to fly the vast space back … up Africa … across the deadly Sahara … Morocco … Spain … the high Pyrenees … France … across The Channel to England … and then up to Leicestershire again, and again to a particular rafter, in a farm’s outbuilding. And as an adult, I think I can imagine this no better. And yet, the swallows – settled in the dustbin shed – each year they bring this intercontinental distance close. Even though, swallows, flyers that they are, can never be touched …

Yes, swallows in my life, so far, have been near, but utterly impossible to touch. That cup of mud tucked into the rafters? Well … even as a small child I knew and felt just how forbidden it is to put a hand into that nest of peek-a-booing chicks. And in all the years of my growing up at Lodge Farm, and since, not one swallow chick has fallen from the nest. Or at least, I believe it to be that way …

Swallows. The impossible to touch. So, it is such a beautiful but strange surprise to me then, that my growing-up children, who are both now moving out and into the far world, should one day bring a touchable swallow to the place where I grew up …

My daughter, Tess, is a vet student, and she was recently doing some work experience at a stud farm in Shropshire. One of the other students had found a fallen swallow nestling, but was unable to carry on hand-rearing the bird, because her time at the stud farm had come to an end. She managed to persuade Tess to carry on with the rearing … and then Tess, as her work-experience came to an end, brought the swallow back home with her …

And so, that is what she, and my son, Louis, are now doing – they are hand-rearing a swallow. Or at least trying to …

a swallow chick    perched on my daughter’s fingers        its sweet alive anger    voiced        loud & yellow

Swallows grow fast, very fast. The grip of tiny claws on your finger. The strength of the grip. The fanning of wings, and the swish of air on your skin as flight is felt by the bird, but … flight not yet made, at least for now. The sudden little crinkled squawk-&-wide-open-yellow-maw as a tweezered wriggling mealy worm is offered … then gulped down. The sharp frightening hunter gaze and already skilled precise rotating head-movements as a passing fly is scanned avidly. This little creature is a terror! A hawk of a kind – a gnat harrier. So fast its ancient instincts are making its form & drive come into the world. This little creature is immensely beautiful …

Tess is trying very hard, as a vet student, as a scientist no less, NOT to get attached to this little being. She is failing, of course, but not enough to try at all to keep the creature. I’m sure part of her does not want this bird to fly, yet I know she mostly wants the creature to go, and to be free … yes! that is certainly what she wants most …

And as we talked about this, with the swallow on her hand, in the garden at my parents’ farm … suddenly the fledgling took flight … was up … and instantly bigger versions of itself boomeranged out of thin air and swooped close through the confines of the garden … and then the little swallow and the bigger ones that had joined it were beyond the beech hedge and in the big sky … Were they friendly, these big blade-shapes cavorting with the fledgling? …

The concern on my daughter’s face was as clear as the streak
of a swallow’s cry …

And then the wee bird landed on her hand again.

And my daughter, the scientist, knew, so very well, that the bird had returned only because of hunger & thirst, and nothing else. And yet, human that she is, my daughter declared her ‘love’ for the beauty of this driven beast …

droplet        swallow

Postscript

Last night, Tess took the fledgling back to Lodge Farm, which is abundant with swallows, skimming flies off the farm’s lake …

Before last night, the little bird had already made a flight with the wild adult birds, of about twenty minutes or so. I was there, at Lodge Farm, and saw how the bigger swallows curved close and jostled the fledgling. Were the ‘wiser’ birds teaching? Or were the wild creatures bullying a stranger? We couldn’t really tell. We suspect they were actually helping, but we don’t have enough knowledge of swallows to be certain of what we were looking at, other than a smaller bird circling and swooping … and being … pursued by larger beings of its kind. And when the nestless fledgling returned to my daughter’s hand, its beak was ajar: the fledgling was panting, and obviously very tired. The sudden open sky and the action of flight had taken a lot of energy …

Late last night, Louis told me that the little swallow had been flying again at Lodge Farm, and this time for over two hours … and that Tess was about to leave, suspecting she would see no more of the bird, when suddenly it landed on her head …

… I texted Tess this morning: ‘I hear, on the wing 4 over 2hrs yester eve! Lv d’ Her reply: ‘Yes but he’s not in a good way 😦 he came back absolutely exhausted and hasn’t tweeted since, and this morning I noticed a slight bloody patch on his under belly so he’s going 2 the vet today. Lv T.’

It is likely that the juvenile driven flyer, un-guided by parent swallows, simply flew and flew in circles until exhaustion … and then made a bad crash landing causing injury …

Such an immensely beautiful & driven little beast. And yet so fragile and dependent on a particular pattern of existence, a particular unfurling of events, a set of steps in a deep old precise process … that cannot be easily interrupted …

The attrition rate for juvenile swallows whilst making their first migration is so very high – only the strongest flyers stand any chance of making the journey their instincts demand of them …

It is sad, this loss. But only for us people. The swallow cares not …

Photographs by Nikki Clayton. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press this autumn). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:

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One Comment on “Flight of Being | Mark Goodwin”

  1. I have used the expression ‘hawk of a kind’ to describe a swallow, but I think that in fact it should be a ‘falcon’ rather than a ‘hawk’. I think I’m right in saying that hawks spy their prey from a perch and then stoop, where as falcons spy from the sky and then dive …

    Also, I’m not entirely sure I’m using the term ‘fledgling’ properly … any birders out there, will no doubt be able to put me right …


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