EAST CHATHAM, NY – It’s always a relief when the swallows return. One day they are suddenly here, flickering around the eaves of the house, and whatever has been waiting for them to start – like spring – can now begin.
Same with the top left, returning a little later. One day in early May, the bumblebee males fluttered across the fields again, spilling their tangled song everywhere. It’s all so definite. No waiting for seeds to germinate or buds to burst, no wonder when the beech leaves will be full. Suddenly there are birds, birdsong and bird flight where there was silence.
It’s a relief, as I say, but it should not be a relief. And yet it is. For the last few springs, I’ve had a secret fear that this may be the year that the swallows and the upper left do not return – that something may have gone wrong in their migration.
The barn swallows overwinter in Central and South America. And the top left? They make a 12,500 mile round trip, across the Amazon and as far south as Paraguay. When they return – and I feel relieved – I realize that my perception of spring now depends on their entire migratory landscape, on how people change bobolink land, all the way from my field where they nest, to the northern tip of their range, to at the southernmost point of their route and back again.
Bobolinks have always migrated long distances, and now that I live next to a field where they breed, I am suddenly aware of it. What I am also aware of now is the extent of change in the world through which these birds fly – the shift in climate scars, in seasonal patterns, in land use, in habitat destruction, in everything that can affect their survival. Their presence extended my consciousness to a world from which the birds return every spring, as if out of danger.
It inevitably reminds me of Gilbert White, the 18th-century Anglican clergyman who lived in the south of England and whose 1789 book, “The Natural History of Selborne,” was called the first work of ecology. White was fascinated by the swallows in his village of Selborne, but he had no idea what had become of them in the winter. There were many theories, including hibernation, but no certain knowledge. “After all our pains and inquiries,” White wrote, “we are not yet entirely sure to which regions they do migrate; and is even more ashamed to find that some do not actually migrate at all. ”
The climate, and the world, is changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?
And so I can not help but wonder how spring must have felt for White when the swallows returned from anywhere – from a place he did not really know how to imagine. Was it different from my sense of spring? After all, I’ve never seen “my” top left on their winter grounds.
But yeah, I think it was different. White suspected that the swallows could freeze wherever they hibernated, “like insects and bats, in a dull state.” Yet there was for him something almost magically local to swallows – the way in which “the return of the sun and beautiful weather awakens them” as if they were somehow inherent in his garden. It may have felt to White that spring, in the form of swallows, had come out of its local thrust – rather than returning from a risky journey into a form-changing world.
Like everyone else, I wonder about the fate of the seasons in an era of climate change. I’m not a record holder like Gilbert White, so I can not say from personal information how much spring has moved. I know it has. I feel it, even though I have a terrible memory for the way the seasons have arranged themselves in previous years.
If the boundaries of spring have faded for me now, it’s because the boundaries of where I live – and where I imagine I live – have also blurred. Part of my flight with the swallows and bobolinks in late summer, out to a world where everything is starting to be different faster in ways that no one can predict.
White found it unlikely that a swallow that was only a few weeks old could migrate, as do swallows, from Selborne as far south as the equator. I do not know what to say to the swallows and upper left here when it’s time to go – no one really does. But their sudden departure is an annual clue to their sensitivity – to how closely and intensely they are informed into the rhythms of their habitat, a habitat I share with them every year for several months.
I try to remember this: I can imagine their migration pattern, but they have to fly it, whatever is out there, whatever has changed, wherever they go. My sense of spring – my relief that it has returned – depends more than I ever thought on changes whose effect I will only know next spring, when the swallows and upper left return – or not.
Verlyn Klinkenborg was a member of the Times editorial board from 1997 to 2013. He is the author of “Timothy: Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile” and teaches at Yale.
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