A Swallow in the Hand
A couple of times in the past few weeks, I’ve stopped by a local swamp where the peepers live. It’s hard to believe that the high-pitched chorus of such small frogs could amount to a roar, but it does. It rises into the night sky and swallows the listener. My internal compass seems to go awry in the midst of such an outcry. In the darkness, there is no horizon except a silence somewhere on the far edge of that cacophony. To the extent that any one peeper has a sense of identity, it must dissolve completely in that night song, because I certainly feel myself dissolving when I hear it.Somehow the question of identity is always emerging on this farm. I found the body of a barn swallow lying just inside the barn the other day. There was no telling how it died, but it must have done so very soon after it returned to the farm. I noticed the intense particularity of its body, its sharply cut wings, the way its plumage seemed to glow with some residual celestial heat. But it was the particularity of death, not the identity of life, a body in stillness while all around me its kin were twittering and swooping in and out of the hayloft.
I wonder what the roar of human consciousness rising over our swamp would sound like if it was audible. I am stunned by the human ability to think of one’s life as a thing apart — with the particularity of a swallow held in the hand. I end up admiring the thoughtless animate persistence of every creature around me, the woodchuck without a doubt in the goldenrod stubble, the horses certain in the pasture, the arrogant geese whose footprints melted the frost this morning.
I keep a dead hummingbird and a downy woodpecker in a bag in the freezer. Down at the barn, the dead swallow lies beside a wren I found this winter, its tail as sharply cocked, as impertinent, as it was when alive. I don’t know why I keep them, except to notice, as I often do, that among small birds, death is not very corrupting. The flight vanishes, and the song. But the feathers live on as if that swallow might wake at any moment, surprised to find itself perched in my hand.