It is a late September day on the Cambridgeshire fens. Autumn suddenly disappearing behind gloomy melancholy clouds. I do stable yard and field chores, sweeping, raking, clearing. My own little plot of fenland heaven, studded with trees and growing hedgerow. I am connected to these few acres in a deep, palpable, tangible way. I know each footstep, horse path, damp patch, birds’ nest, rabbit warren. Today I can feel winter nudging, not yet here, but closer. The spring and summer filled with birdsong and sunshine, is unquestionably over. The barn swallows have flourished in my stables, graduating from their initial four early nests, to eleven. The nests are balanced on every crosspiece of wood, in every stable. Their glorious chatter and calling, swooping and soaring flight, have filled my summer and my heart. Mostly they are calling to each other and dive bombing me to tell me to go away. I am certain they have not understood my many efforts to help them thrive. Flooding some of the field (so they have enough mud to stop nests drying completely out); cultivating a huge horse muck heap (many flying insects for them to feast on); hosing the stable roof down when it gets blisteringly hot (to stop the chicks overheating). There is also Jackdaw and Crow Patrol for when the chicks cannot quite leave the ground. As I sweep and listen to their noisy, cheerful chatter I remember many days sat listening to the horses munching, the air full of the swallows entrancing flight, red throats flashing, electric cobalt blue feathers glistening. Those impossibly tight turns, the hovering in the stables going from flat out to a standstill, the gentle loops, calling sweetly. The day my elderly pony died was when the last nest chose to fledge, and they fluttered and rested all around us, cheeping him onto his next journey.
Lost in reverie of summer losses and joys, I realise it is strangely quiet. I look up from my chores to see every fence line and rail is filled with sitting swallows. They perch on branches, posts, rails. Strangely silent, they flutter and hop, sometimes changing places. I realise they are getting ready to leave. These are not just my swallows, but hundreds more. I am filled with excitement underpinned by quiet dread. I go to join them in the fields, sitting with my back against the only fence they are not resting on. Surrounded by subdued chatters, hops, flutters, as they call quietly to each other. Changing places sometimes. I wonder if they could be renewing acquaintances from their long journeys, meeting friends last made in Africa. I wonder how this year’s babies feel about being among so many new birds. I know many will not survive the journey, even fewer will return here next year. I am already feeling both a sense of loss and of privilege. Determined not to miss their departure.
I sit mesmerised, clouds growing darker and more menacing. I may be here a while. I know they are leaving, and I know I will not miss it. The cold increases my melancholy and I start to cry, quietly. I am so lonely in their leaving, so changed by their being. My summers are marked by their arrivals, their courtships, nest making, initiations, first flights. Their swoops and chatter. Sometimes their sad little deaths too.
I watch as they rise and fall back, little waves of them as if to say “Now! Now!”. Perhaps the wiser say “not yet not yet”. Invisible and unfelt currents of air (to me anyhow, as a mere human) inform their decision making. In one large, smooth, flowing group, they leave. It seems sudden although we have all been preparing for hours. I watch and cry as they rise steadily into the sky, looking so small against the dark clouds, so fragile for such a long journey. I call “bye bye” swallows, safe travels. I hope I will be here next year when some of you make it back. I’ll miss you.
Every loss I have ever felt is caught up in their leaving, somehow.
As quickly as it happened, it is over. The air becomes still. There is a hollow hushed expectancy in the stillness. I realise how cold I am as the tears dry on my cheeks. The silence is shattering. Everything so empty, so still. I ponder the privilege of seeing their leaving, the future magnificence of their journey. I hear the emptiness. What now?
Walking wearily back to the house, a song thrush surprisingly serenades from a nearby tree. Pure and joyful. It sounds an affirmation – I am still here, and so are you. A restorative reminder. A connection.
Lonely in their leaving, but not alone.