Wednesday, October 06, 2010

So Long (not Goodbye), A Slow Song for Swifts

It happened, it was good-- great even.
I conceived and organized it as a way to say "so long" to Richmond's Chimney Swifts who will soon be leaving for their winter home in Peru.
Somewhere between 60-80 people came.
The cops didn't arrest us (no permission was secured).
Everyone faced the roosting birds.
I read an introduction to the evening, the birds, and my history with them.
Mark from Metro Sound on Broad Street provided power for the PA.
Mary Elfner from the Audubon Society talked about the ways of the swifts.
Jonathan Vassar and The Speckled Bird played music while they roosted.
The band didn't plug in.
You could hear them and the sweet chatters of the swifts.

It was all very beautiful.

All photos by Kim Wolfe.
Poster design, card and text by MKL.
Video by Andrew.

My Intro:

The idea of this- me here, you there, and them there was borne out of looking—looking out a north-facing window, in a room, in an apartment, worlds away from here. This north-facing window was the one I’d use to check the weather—the one I would lean out to talk to a friend passing by the candy store below, that I closed on foggy days because the exhaust from trucks wafts into second floor apartments in small Appalachian towns. The room that held this window was spacious and (no thanks to me) sparsely furnished. On the sill was a small, potted Crown of Thorns (also known as a Christ plant); next to the window was a radiator, next to the radiator a pair of hand-hewn candlesticks, and next to the candlesticks a cherry bookshelf. It was at that window that I would sit and read. I taught myself to play the accordion at that window; late at night I would stand there looking out on my little city before heading to bed.

It must be because I was a bartender and rarely home for sunset that it took me so long to notice the small birds swirling above the slender chimney across the street. I knew the building well—a former Chevrolet dealership smack in the city center—its gaggle of rooftops, skylights and chimneys intrigued me before I lived in the apartment. How could I have I missed the birds? I had even gained access to the shuttered structure to photograph it! The day I noticed must have been a Sunday. The bar was closed on Sundays and when finally I witnessed them swirling, swooping and then dropping into the stack dozens at a time I was thrilled.

Seeing this aerial performance across from where I lived led me to the library, to friends majoring in science and to the Internet. After my numerous conversations and trips to the library my view out that window was changed. No longer was I simply watching some birds fly around outside my window. Now I was looking through glass and seeing much further and much more than what had previously been there. The view became wider, deeper, in all ways more vast.

Before Jonathan Vassar and The Speckled Bird perform, Mary Elfner, a friend and an environmental scientist with the Audubon Society, will be talking to you about the characteristics of these birds that I learned were called Chimney Swifts. I’m going to leave the details of their migration, feeding, nesting and flying to a person I want to call an expert, but was encouraged to call an enthusiast.

I just want to say one more thing before I hand over the mic to Mary and the band. As much as it was the swooping, the flitting, the diving, and THE FLYING, that attracted me to these creatures, it wasn’t my envy for or desire to fly that fueled my interest. Instead it was the birds’ habit to come and go that has intrigued me. I’m not envious of their ease of travel. Instead, I find it fascinating that year after year, they continue to return to the same place. I don’t mean to anthropomorphize them, but I also can’t help but be a little jealous of the ease with which they gather and cohabitate.

Much has been made of the bird as a metaphor and I don’t have much to add to the subject—in fact it’s probably best if I publicly acknowledge that the author Douglas Coupland’s neologism “metaphasia – the inability to perceive metaphor” applies perfectly to me. With that said, I’m thrilled that Jonathan Vassar and The Speckled Bird have agreed to contribute to this experience and I trust that their sonic treatment of the subject will say more than I ever could with words. These swifts are urban birds and their roosting, regardless of how many people notice, is a social experience. Thank you for watching them with me.