Last night, just as the sky had turned to the color of dark-washed jeans, I walked outside onto the porch and felt spring’s hand on my shoulder, pushing me gently out into the darkness. I paused a moment to draw in a long deep breath of green-scented air and, just as I did, I saw a barn swallow perched in the eaves. Absolutely still.
He ignored my acknowledgment and remained as he was. He could have been a decoy, so calm and unmoving, up on the ledge, up against the haint blue ceiling.
Owen and I walked around the yard — along the edge of the road, down the driveway, across the branch line, up along the field, over and over — for about 30 minutes. We saw a sharp splinter of moon dangling in the western sky and a small patch of Johnson grass sprouted in a field awaiting planting. We discovered the branch of an alder tree bent to the ground beneath the weight of a bird feeder I’d overfilled. We played fetch with a rubber ball missing a chunk of rubber. And when I walked back inside, it didn’t occur to me to look for the barn swallow.
This morning, just as the sky was brightening to the color of a favorite chambray shirt, I walked outside onto the porch and heard the flutter of wings above my head. Two barn swallows swooped and dove from one end to the other, out into the open and back again, their movements tatting a lacy air-web within inches of my face.
It didn’t take a tremendous amount of ornithological knowledge to formulate an assumption that the two were a pair and that they’d chosen somewhere on my porch to build a nest. It didn’t take a tremendous amount of any kind of knowledge to figure out that they didn’t want me messing with it. Wherever it was.
I let my eyes glide over the tops of the sturdy square columns that hold up the porch roof. No evidence of a mud daub nest. At least none that I could see. And, yet, it had to be there. These two would not be flying sorties if it wasn’t.
Barn swallows are beautiful birds — their backs the deepest indigo blue, their chests a rusty orange, their long split tails trimmed in white dots that remind me of an ellipsis. These two are also, it seems, incredibly prompt. The research I couldn’t resist doing informed me that my friends winter in South and Central America, leaving there in February so as to arrive at their summer breeding grounds, in this case, Sandhill, by late April to early May. And here it is the first week in May.
I’ve thought about George and Virginia (Yes, I named them.) off and on all day. I’ve found myself wondering where that nest is going to be and how many eggs she is going to lay. I’ve contemplated the way they flew — not side by side, but in complementary patterns. I’ve marveled at the thousands of miles they managed to fly before arriving at Sandhill and finding each other.
The only conclusion to which I’ve come is that none of my questions or contemplations mean the first thing to George and Virginia. Or to the herd of deer that moved slowly, like a funeral cortege, through my backyard last week. Or to the family of geese that my brother shepherded across the road the other day. They are not interested in or affected by the thoughts, intentions or desires of those who observe them.
Which raises the question of how often have I, in making a flight plan, allowed the opinions of spectators to influence my route or destination? How many times have I tried to match my gait to someone else’s only to find myself out of breath or so far out in front that I am, in reality, walking alone anyway? How frequently have I sat still, still as a decoy, in an attempt to go unnoticed, doing my best to hide my shiny indigo coat?
I want to be more like a barn swallow. And over the next two or three weeks, while George and Virginia build their nest and lay their eggs and hatch their babies, I’m going to pay close attention and learn everything I can.