Tuesday, 17 September 2013

There’s sense in nature’s chaos and symmetry!

The swallows are still here, but not for long. They’re waiting for the right wind to blow and carry them away towards Africa. I wonder which way they’ll go: south, across the widest part of the English Channel to northern France; south west, towards the Bay of Biscay; or south east over Wales and England, where they’d be able to stop off for a feed and a rest?

Whether the wind that carries them away from me is a north-westerly, north easterly or pure northerly, as they leave for their epic journey the weather they’ll behind them will have an Autumnal nip in it.  The arrival and departure of these beautiful and entertaining birds define my seasons.

This year we had that long cold Spring, when the north wind blew for so long it felt as if it might never stop. Those clear cold April night skies left a heavy dew blanketing the ground each morning, providing enough water to germinate seeds, yet the freezing air then left those sorry seedlings clinging to life, only daring to raise their tiny leaves a mere millimetre above the dry cracked earth. As if to reinforce my strong belief in the tenacity of nature, they defied the sub-Arctic temperatures and lack of water to survive, dormant in suspended animation, unable to develop roots or foliage.

During that sunny yet uncomfortably long cold Spring, I stood outside my house, looking to the skies. Where were the swallows? Were they not coming this year? Had they been stopped in their migratory tracks by the brutal northerly wind spinning off the blocking high pressure zone? 

Maybe they’d become exhausted by their journey from Africa, and settled in West Cork or Normandy, deciding that County Galway was just too far. Why on earth would they choose to battle that blood-freezing wind, when they didn’t have to? I’m sure they’d find midges to eat in Wexford.

The answer to my question was revealed in a most splendid way. When finally the wind changed, sending a very welcome warm breeze up from the south, the damson flies of Lough Corrib launched into a massive hatch. The air around my house was thick with them, churning themselves into blurry tornados of crazed aerial insect orgies. 

My friend, the Artist formerly known as Snarly, happens to be an excellent and very knowledgeable fly fisherman, and he explained to me how these barrel-shaped clouds of  of flies were actually thousands of females, while the male would fly through the centre of the mêlée, inseminating as many of the ladies as he could manage on his merry marital way.

Then, no longer than a few of hours after the arrival of that warm southerly wind, the swallows flew in. As if ecstatic to have finished their intercontinental trek, they swooped and looped and dived and soared around the barn in which they nest, just over the stone wall from my back garden. I know it’s never a good thing to try and super-impose human emotions onto wild animals, but just as I was overjoyed to see these clarions of Summer, only a very sour and numb man could fail to have interpreted their flying that day as anything but jubilant and joyous.

They’d made it, and from what I understand  - please correct me if I’m wrong - the vast majority of these new arrivals had never been to this barn before. As young birds barely beyond fledglings, their parents had guided them all the way to Africa, where most of the older birds would die, leaving only a few flyers experienced enough to guide the young ‘uns back to this barn, several thousands of miles away across seas, oceans and two continental land masses.

As if that wasn’t miraculous enough a matter to contemplate, Nature in its magnificent blend of chaos and symmetry had contrived to provide a handsome feast for these tiny global travellers.
There’s not much that I fully understand. The only constant we can absolutely rely on is change, a fact that often makes our journey through life something of a struggle. Yet here, at last, was a wondrous phenomenon that made perfect sense to this oft-confused scribbler. The very same warm air that precipitated the damselle hatch was carried on the southerly that allowed the swallows to reach their destination, and for a while I sat outside my house, at peace, watching the exhausted little birds gorge themselves on their juicy fly feast, leaving several thousand damselles uneaten to thrive again another day.

It’s too easy to call it the balance of nature, because often, even without the invasive hand of mankind, nature’s systems provide far too much food for one species, while starving another. Such fluctuations happen and then correct themselves over time, or encourage a species mutation to occur that is better-suited to those conditions.


Away from all the science and theories, there’s just the utter bliss that these birds bring to our lives for six months each year. Their eye-catching aerobatics are legendary, while their presence reinforces our sense of Summer.

This year, thankfully, we didn’t need reminding it was Summer. The hot dry weather left me feeling more than a little smug, because I’d been a lazy yet lucky gardener. Having created a long flower bed, I simply cast my wildflower seeds from last year, along with a sprinkling of tall mixed seeds along the back.

Cornflowers and poppies hate the wetness of the average Irish summer, but this year they thrived, as if a tranche had been cut from an idyllic wildflower meadow and dropped into our garden. The bed required no digging, the seeds dropped on bare ground, yet for months we’ve enjoyed a swaying metre-high forest of deep blue cornflowers and blood-red poppies. Simply, it has been a delight for us, along with the butterflies, bees and ladybirds.

By the time you read this the swallows will probably have set off, but I’ll be outside again next Spring, scouring the southern skies, yearning for their return.

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