Spirited swifts exemplify meaning
Their shrill kweek-kweek cries and manic behaviour around the church spires they love have earned them the nickname of devil birds. However, author Helen Macdonald, who knows more about them than I, describes them as “the nearest things on earth to aliens”.
Swifts are aerial travellers, only coming to rest to lay eggs and hatch their young. A swift can fly as far as five round trips to the moon and back in its lifetime.
I have known about swifts since childhood. I recall their arrival in late April as a cause for celebration, a spiritual affirmation of the natural world’s constancy in contrast to the tumult of the human world.
I’ll see them next week in Lourdes, where they circle and swerve around the basilica’s spires and are a familiar sight to those in the Grotto below.
I might just be in time to see them when I return at the end of July before they fly south, leaving an emptiness in the skies that signals the approach of winter.
An emblem of freedom and hope
This year I also came across them in Jerusalem. They love the city. They are oblivious to religious conventions and boundaries and nest unconcernedly in the holy sites of the three Abrahamic religions without regard to their significance.
And I came across them in Mark Coreth’s beautiful sculpture, The Tree of Hope, in the St John of Jerusalem Eye Clinic garden, only a short walk from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Coreth’s sculpture is an olive tree. He has replaced the leaves with swifts which swoop and dive in the sculpture as they do in real life. Coreth’s bronze swifts seem alive and represent the freedom and hope they express in the sky above the sculpture.
Back home, when I return with our dog from our evening walk, the skies are empty as far as I can see, which is not as high as the swifts are flying, if you know anything about swifts.
The fact that it is almost entirely dark now is not the reason. Instead, the swifts have embarked on their ‘vesper flight’, rising six to ten thousand feet into the cold, still, clear upper atmosphere. Here, it is thought, they sleep on the wing.
However, scientists now believe they also use the time to connect with their fellow swifts and assess the weather at the macro level. They are re-orienting themselves using the stars above, the earth’s magnetic field below and light polarization patterns. And they are exchanging data with each other to build a collective assessment of what to do next.
Swifts may not be at such elevated levels all the time. Still, as Helen Macdonald suggests, they need to rise above the day-to-day with their peers to clearly see what is hidden at ground level every now and then.
Swifts fly with freedom, grit, resilience, uniqueness, hope, peace and sheer joy in life. They know how to rise above the day-to-day, share their forecasts and insights with their peers and collectively make decisions about their future as a flock. What could be more meaningful than that?
Attributions and references
Photo: the author
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
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