The Night We Watched the Swifts

July 7, 2017

Not quite ready for the evening to end, we left the restaurant and wandered along quiet streets as disk fell. Occasionally, we slowed to enjoy the charm, New England style, of lovely porches, splashes of flowers against fences, street lamps beginning to flicker on. Behind the town library, a garden path beckoned us to leave the sidewalk and stroll between sage and daisies, past perfectly placed benches, down a flight of terraced stairs.

And there we found them – a couple at a small table – quiet together in the deepening twilight.

“Beautiful evening …,” we made the customary remark as we passed.

“Do you see them?” the man replied.

“See them?” 

We stopped. Confused.

“Look … do you see them? The swifts. We are watching the swifts.” The woman pointed beyond the garden. “Last night we counted over 200.”

Following her gaze, I saw several small birds darting in wide circles, lower and lower.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it. They sleep in the chimney,” she spoke in a near whisper.

We watched as two .. three … ten … came flitting across the town. Swirling, spinning, circling, descending … disappearing into a single tall chimney.

“That chimney is the last one of its kind in town. It should be protected, don’t you think?   Did you know that chimney swifts never land?  They can’t perch.  They can only hang inside the chimney. So if it’s ever torn down, they’d have nowhere to go.”

I stood, silent on the stairs,  as another few birds dropped through the night air.  For the first time in my life, I pondered the fate of chimney swifts.

I thought of how many decades these birds had come home to this chimney.  Swooping over the streets once lined with horrse-drawn carriages, now with SUV’s. Soaring over women taking an evening stroll in petticoats, and now women jogging in leggings. Skittering lower over a teen who stretches the phone cord out the door to gossip on the back stoop … the teens now hidden in their rooms illuminated by the glow of their smart phones.

Generations had come and gone. The world had seen unfathomable change. But still the swifts came. Every evening, they came.

How many people had stopped to notice?

I turned to look at the couple who noticed. They did not see me, their faces  uplifted, smiling, reverent … at peace.

In that moment, I felt peace too.  I found comfort in knowing that in a little town in Massachusetts, chimney swifts do what chimney swifts have done since before there were chimneys. And  that there is a couple who sits together at the end of the day, keeping watch.

The hypnotic parade continued, dozens of swifts now, arriving from all directions. A twirling funnel of gathering.

“If the chimney ever goes, the birds will go. And then I will go,” The man spoke softly.

And I understood.

The world changes rapidly around us, but some things do not change. Some things follow ancient, almost forgotten rhythms.  Mysteries written into the very air.

Oh how we need to notice those things … to sit still in beautiful places and simply be with the things that do not change.

A few moments later, the sky almost dark now, we quietly thanked the couple and left them still sitting, still bearing witness.  

I realized later that  I had taken no photos. The spell had been deep enough to hold me in its wonder with no thought of “preserving” the moment. I drifted to sleep knowing that I would never forget the images, the sounds, the peace … the night we watched the swifts.