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.



The river is so low I could do this: could sit right at the bottom of the channelized bank in front of a nearly dry culvert; could notice the little plants sprouting along the water where plants haven't grown in possibly years; could sit on a dry piece of concrete leading from the culvert to the water; could sit there quite comfortably and wait for the little birds to get used to my presence and take up their activities once more, which they did, after at first copious chattering and fluttering. They perched on the girders, they sat in their cup-shaped mud nests scattered at random, perhaps twenty or so in all. Their cinnamon faces and orange-ish breasts gleamed in the dim bridge light as they arrowed out into the sun and back.

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) have been arriving in the Midwest from South America for thousands of years, since the ice pulled back to what some Indian tribes called the always-winter land, and are extremely common throughout North America and the world. They used to live in caves before there were barns and steel girder bridges. But I'm not aware of any caves in this vicinity. Are they a species that came to this region with humans? They now prefer to live in human built structures and are thoroughly adapted to life among us— which is dangerous, since they are beautiful. This beauty nearly caused their destruction, owing to their being used to decorate women's hats in the 19th century; and so many species’ near destruction led to the founding of the Audubon Society, part of the nascent modern conservation movement. Poems, screeds and letters were written, laws were passed, and barn swallows continued to exist.

It seems odd to me that just when the great flocks of birds were being decimated across the country should be precisely when fashion would mandate attire that would speed those flocks’ demise, but so it was. And so it continues: nowadays, when the drilling for and use of oil is supremely dangerous and environmentally risky for all of life on earth, we adore clothing made of polyester and other petro-chemicals, and we wear t-shirts made of cotton, which has become one of the most chemical laden, environmentally destructive crops to grow. How fares the movement to curb these excesses? Where is our Teddy Roosevelt, who regardless of his jingoistic faults, somehow managed to make into a national priority the protection of land and other species (and thus ourselves)?

They shouldn't have been a surprise. Barn swallows are common, easily spotted, one of the first species on many birders’ lists. This bridge is perfect habitat from a swallow's perspective. It provides shelter from the elements, and the girders furnish ledges exactly the right depth on which to perch and build nests. There's plenty of mud along the bank and plenty of food on the river. Having provided this fabulous site, humans show up only rarely, and don't make nuisances of themselves. The swallows vacation here for the summer, enjoying the fine weather, and they leave before the autumn rains and winter snows, when salty, oily, chemical-laden water from the road flows straight through the downpipes into the river below. Then it's better to have flown south.

I sat awhile, watching the graceful flights, swooping like blessings on the earth, noticing the tiny new plants, the dragonflies, the sunlight on water, the goose, raccoon, deer –and coyote? fox? -- tracks. Some who value “unspoiled” grandeur might scorn such a site, so degraded, of little wilderness worth and fairly low floristic value, with cars whizzing overhead and the bank adorned not only with sedges and driftwood, but also with a muddy baseball cap and an old hubcap glinting at water's edge—objects I’d prefer not to see and could possibly omit from this account, but won’t. I sat there awhile longer, thinking about some paragraphs by biologist E.O. Wilson, in which he says that there are many places, many tiny wildernesses where life carries on regardless of human concerns, wildernesses in the interstices, in the in-between places, at what we consider to be the edges, on the margins of our self-important carryings on.

Note: More about barn swallows can be found at All About Birds and The Birds of North America Online. One of my favorite books of nature writings is Of Prairie, Woods & Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing, edited by Joel Greenberg (University of Chicago Press, 2008). On page 374 you can find the poem "Who Kills the Birds," written in 1901 by Helen Drummond of the Illinois Audubon Society.

Related Posts:
Sandhill Cranes!
A Date with Some Turtles
Sandhill Cranes and Spring Resolutions
Christmas Day in Thatcher Woods
Gardening in Thatcher Woods, with Help
 


5 comments:

Flower Pot said...

Much to enjoy and think about...I had no idea cotton was such an unfriendly-to-the-planet crop!

Vicky said...

Thanks for the post and the tip on Joel Greenberg's book! I'm curious about that poem too.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Flower Pot, thanks for commenting. Yes, it's too bad about conventional cotton, since there's no other fiber quite like it.


Hi Vicky,
Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy the book. There are many interesting selections from a wide range of authors.

Diana of Elephants Eye said...

After years of dutifully virtuously wearing cotton, not polyester - I discovered that GMO cotton was invented to reduce the use of agro-chemicals. I try for organic cotton, and we have some bamboo or hemp textiles available.

What do you know about Modal, apparently made from beech wood. Similar to viscose?

What would be your green choice in textiles?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

hi Diana,

That is a good question, one I haven't answered for myself. There are no perfect textiles. Organic cotton is good. Hemp is too--but it's illegal for American farmers to grow! Modal and viscose seem ok, but take a fair amount of energy to produce. Right now in summer, I'm mostly wearing linen shirts as being cool and durable plus having lower pesticide and energy requirements than cotton.