In the evening news

What happens in the meantime has nothing to do with us. The wide-eyed stories about angelic visitations are all beside the point, and here’s why. All day Tuesday the tundra swans streamed north, great “V”s each some fifty birds strong, with two, three, sometimes as many as four flocks strung out across the sky at the same time. You hear them first, high notes from a tuneless music of the soul, as if all the klezmer clarinets in the world had decided to start talking at the same time.

Hearing the first few distant notes you scan the sky, clear but for a scrim of cloud along the horizon. There! Bring the binoculars up: my god. Long white tireless wings going wft wft wft, outstretched necks tipped in a black you can’t quite see against the blue, bodies white, so white the contrast with the sky almost hurts the eyes. They’re rowing, you think. They’re singing as they go, like all good boatmen. Flotillas of kayaks in the sky’s unending lake.

They’ve spent the winter in the inland waterways of the mid-Atlantic coast and now the tundra is calling them from two thousand miles away. Get a map and draw a straight line between the huge impoundment at Middle Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania and Lake Erie: it’ll go right over our mountaintop farm. And when the swans go they all go together, lifting off from Middle Creek in a dizzying rush of thousands all at once, I’m told. Some spring I will have to go there with our birder friends who make the pilgrimage every year – not to watch so much as to listen. I want to hear how such liquid fluting gets transformed all of a sudden into a rhythmless symphony for brushes on still air.

I went for a walk in the starlight around 8:00 p.m., stood in the woods for a while and listened as the flocks kept going over, straining my eyes, focusing on one part of the sky to try and catch the blink of stars crossed by wings. A great-horned owl was booming from just over the ridge: odd juxtaposition, but of course in Nature there’s no such thing as dissonance (though no harmony, either, except in retrospect).

Wednesday morning when I sat outside at 5 a.m. the swans were still going over. I thought about the day ahead in which I would go off to a conference held by and for biologists and bureaucrats from the state and federal wildlife agencies. Long talks filled with acronyms and plastic words like develop, manage, enhance. Language like a cold fog. Power that points, projected toward horizons that can by definition never be reached. If we could only leap – just for a moment! – into the unimaginable waters of the mind of a swan! I am reminded of the title of a book I once looked at, on the history of Buddhism in America: How the White Swans Came to the Lake. Does Buddhism tell us anything useful about the minds of animals, I wonder? I think it merely repeats that old rumor, the one so many wildlife managers regard as the most dangerous heresy: that animal minds are no different from ours in their original clarity, their wildness.

So all night while we slept there were swans going over the house, way up over everything. This thought is beyond humbling. I think of some of what they have to cross in the course of their journey and it makes me weep, right there on the porch, clutching my coffee cup.

****

The evening before, during a lull in the music I had walked on up to the top of the ridge and looked at the lights for a while. It’s a farm valley; the lights are yard lights put up supposedly to discourage burglars and vandals. Over the past 10 years as the Amish have moved in these lights have dwindled, at the same time that the town on the other side of the ridge has installed street lights so bright the whole northern portion of the night sky is lost. The spreading darkness in this valley seems especially friendly to me because we’ve gotten to know these new neighbors better than we ever knew our old ones, whom we never had much reason to know because their only thought is cows. The Amish, by contrast, have dozens of different ventures going on at every farm. The ultimate conservatives, they are, paradoxically, among the most imaginative of farmers.

I can easily picture one of the maiden aunts
at the farm across the valley walking
back to her cottage from the main house
and hearing the swans. She pauses
long enough to wipe the last of the dish soap
from her hands onto her apron, smiling to
herself, not bothering to look up because
what’s to see? And after a moment
goes back to tell the others, who will also
want to come listen.

I will keep their names out of this, but
respect still permits I hope a sketch –
unadorned, of course – employing
only shades of black and navy blue
and saying nothing of the white strands
tucked primly under the bonnet.
The constellations all have names
in German. Venus would’ve already set
behind the horizon, which for them
is this very ridge where I stand, busy
with my embroidering.

This lady I’m telling you about keeps a store
stocked with wholegrains, kitchenware
and quilts, quilts. She and the others
have spent all winter at them: in March
they bulge from the shelves. But
her store has in addition a rack of books;
the books include field guides to the birds.
She knows plenty about swans, I’ll bet –
as much as anyone.

But about some things she knows a bit less,
and at times I suspect she feels that lack
as a sadness, maybe a hurt. Think of it:
even a radio is off-limits. Spring
comes unheralded except by signs
like this. What has she heard
in the course of her fifty years?
Her faith forbids all music made
by the too-clever hand of man.
Teenaged boys can run wild until
they get married and baptized – thus
some of the men may once
have corrupted their hearing
with instruments beyond the plain voice.

But for an Amish woman, standing outside
in early evening with her tired eyes
grateful for the darkness, pausing
for a long moment to be
alone with it, this
swan music must sound
like the purest praise.

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