Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Barn Swallows under the Bridge

Saturday morning I went to a workday in Thatcher woods, but was a little late, so no one was at the usual meeting place. I headed towards the main north-south path and walked north, but no dice, so walked back south to Washington Avenue. It was technically a beautiful morning--bright, sunny, and warm, with fairly low humidity. Another in a string of sunny days, part of the sunniest, driest season in years. Drought is beginning to be an operational word, and the trees are definitely showing it, their leaves drooping a little, lacking the glossy out-spreading-ness one expects in early June.
Bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix L.)

Yes, it was a beautiful day: fine, glittering spider webs laced the lattices formed by the floral spikes of the bottle brush grass, the Joe Pye weed, cow parsley, raspberries, and woodland sunflowers coming on strong, all glowing in the filtered sunlight, the strong golden-green light of the woodland savanna in early summer.

At Washington, an impulse took me along the narrow sidewalk over the bridge to the middle of the river, where I looked south to see what I could see, which was a river low as I have rarely seen it, so low you could see the silty bottom embellished with a distinctly urban collection of old tires, discarded DVD player, pieces of  machinery and so on. The current flows south, moving to join the Kankakee in becoming the Illinois en route to the Mississippi, and gravelly mud has built up on the south side of the piers. North and further south the channel flows deeper, the water's ordinary murky browny-green reflecting the trees massed along the banks. I leaned on the rail and took in the prospect, fine and surprising.

The first surprise was a canoe heading downstream. Canoeists may be common elsewhere, but not on this stretch of the Des Plaines, which flows like an old, wistful memory interrupting the angular necessities of modern life. Red, it was, carrying two people, though too far away to determine much more than that. I watched it for awhile, keeping to the deeper channel; such is the power of attraction of my own species and its activities that it took awhile for what else there was to see and hear to make an impression. But sun and water flow and a light breeze from the south catching a little coolness off the water gradually did their work. I became conscious of the movement of other creatures, tuned into the realm of existences living their own lives according to rhythms other than my own. Dragonflies flickered, not exactly visible from so far away, yet what seemed like ripples in the air showed where they were. A string of geese swam towards the bridge: adults, half-grown adolescents, and two younger ones, still yellowish and fluffy; they headed for the bank and waddled up, adding their signature to the mess of tracks in the mud.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1917
After all this, I suddenly became aware of the most noticeable part of the scene. How on earth had I missed the glittering blue swallows dipping and swerving directly below? Out from under the bridge they came, elegant little birds, in threes and fives, curving nearly bridge height, then banking downstream, catching insects at the water surface in full flight, at full speed, skipping like the stones that left my son's hand during summers on a rocky beach on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Skipping miraculously, gliding and swooping, wings back, wings outspread, tails sleeked, then forked, as air currents, effort and maneuvers demanded. I watched, I marveled. I hadn't known they were here--oh happy day! I couldn't help myself. I walked the rest of the way across the bridge, slipped over the rail and clambered down the bank to discover how they lived.