Thursday, February 11, 2010

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 the human consciousness rising over our swamp would sound like it if 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 when it was 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."
Verlyn Klinkenborg. 


  1. Thank you for posting Klinkenborg's writing.

  2. He's terrific, isn't he Mim.

    Can I ask you a question please --- what are your thoughts re; Wendell Berry? In his book ' The Unsettling of America, he writes beautifully about the protection of our world's 'sacred groves'. I have quoted him many times in ArtScience presentations, but certain scientists seem to be quite threatened by this - or by the ethos behind his work and way of seeing the world. Why is this, I wonder? I tend to think fear and 'the need to possess and own' things (whether this be objects, ideas, people... ) are huge drivers in our world - unhappily so. There is room for everyone's opinions and my hope always is to break down barriers, rather than uphold them.

    Here's one of my favourite WB excerpts....

    'If we are to be properly humble in our use of the world, we need places that we do not use at all. We need the experience of leaving something alone. We need places that we forbear to change, or influence by our presence, or impose on even by our understanding; places that we accept as influences upon us, not the other way around, that we enter with the sense, the pleasure, of having nothing to do there; places that we must enter in a kind of cultural nakedness, without comforts or tools, to submit to rather than to conquer...'

    I (and this is said tentatively!) see Verlyn Klinkenborg as being kindred in his empathic approach to the environment (and life in gen.) to such thoughtful folk as Thoreaux and Wendell Berry.

    I'd value your thoughts on this, please Mim? Just when you get a chance...

    Thank - L. C

    PS. I 'went to South Beach' last night via a TV show... am quite sure I recognized some of your people and places!

  3. What a fabulous piece of writing. Thank you for the introduction, clarab! Px

  4. A pleasure, Pam - Jack (from New Harbor and Troy, NY) introduced me to his writing some time ago. I was pleased to rediscover this Swallow piece whilst rustling through papers the other day. xx