My 1960s summer experiences of slipping sleepily along wee creeks splayed out on patched rubber inner tubes still sparkle on the skin of my brain. These are glistening sunbeams of memory, illuminated little keyholes that allow me to peek through a decrepit door at a shy and innocent time.
A daring leap and a loud holler would carry you over some of these lazy capillaries in an arid watershed, skinny brooks for skinny boys. You'd be more likely to drown running through the sprinkler. Excitement wasn't part of the experience, unless you bumped into a burrowing wasp's nest up in the warm mud where thirsty pasture sod curled out into the void as if reaching for a drink. Then you paddled madly like a startled mallard, or more likely stood up and sprinted for safety in the shin-deep puddles.
The only serpents in the garden were water snakes that traced geometrically graceful arcs from bank to bank, hell-bent on grasshoppers and capable of delivering a strong enough pinch to discourage incautious handling. But Eden still had its devils, in the form of we pesticating rascals, floating through July with chores done and eyes peeled for any chances to explore the more-forgiving outer edges of trouble.
There's nothing much we did that was sinful or hurtful, but one weedy patch of guilt and regret is still rooted in those times. We broke some swallows' nests.
Drifting under a thick concrete slab that passed for a bridge out on the reservation, our curiosity fastened onto the clouds of cliff swallows and their improbable adobe houses, pasted to the under-girders like an organic cross between Anasazi ruins and hippies' geodetic domes.
Oh, the shame of thrown rocks. I'd like to go back and wring my scrawny neck. It was far from a full-out holocaust - more like three or four nests and their precious cargoes of eggs, but that's three or four too many.
Just possibly slightly less stupid a man than boy, barn swallows now are welcome up in my eaves in Ilwaco, where they scouted out and colonized a hole beneath the gutter this spring. Slicing through the humid fresh Pacific air, lightning flashes of the purest, deepest sapphire, the swallows now seem to me to be personified spirits of luck and protection. I've yet to see a single mosquito within a thousand feet of home this year, though the no-see-um gnats appear to slip under the swallows' radar.
(A contrary view was held by my sweetly superstitious Great-Grandmother Jessie Alton, who couldn't abide swallows in the house because she believed they brought in bedbugs. Odd to say, I've recently learned that dense colonies of swallows do indeed sometimes cause infestations of swallow bugs, which rather resemble bedbugs and will bite humans if no birds are available.)
It is a minor consolation of the ongoing great recession to observe other swallows feeding their nestlings up in the virgin eaves of otherwise lifeless spec houses, elegant young squatters making the best of another species' profligate ways. It is an ill foreclosure notice that brings nobody any good.
By mid-September, they'll be away to the river valleys of Central and South America - wise birds.
My affection for swallows has ancient roots. A book from 1650 on the folk customs of the English noted "Though uselesse unto us and rather of molestation, we commonly refrain from killing Swallows, and esteem it unlucky to destroy them." Similar beliefs survive even from the old Romans, who held them sacred. In the century-old "The Swallow Book," Prof. Guiseppe Pitre of the University of Palmero recounts many priceless legends about this "good-omened little bird of gladness and of joy." (See http://tinyurl.com/nu2ffk)
Pleased to think the best of them, perhaps my favorite of the professor's stories is this:
Accidentally tangled in a frayed line above a Paris street, an exhausted swallow cried out to her surrounding flock.
"After a while they seemed to hold a noisy consultation and one of them evidently hit upon a plan to free their companion and to make it known to the others. For all at once they set to work. One after another they flew swiftly to the knot and gave it a blow with her bill in the same spot. In about half an hour the string was broken and the prisoner set at liberty. The swallows remained about the place until evening, flying about and chattering as if congratulating themselves upon the success of their maneuver."
Along with intelligence and compassion, for my sake, I'm thankful forgiveness also evidently is part of the personality of the swallow.
Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.