These days may be gray and rainy (or worse), but this time of year has one redeeming factor for me: the swans are back in town. Every time I drive to town, I’m sure to spot them – anywhere between two and two hundred. I’m sorry for the farmers who do not appreciate them being in the fields, but oh, I do so like having them around. Pure white birds with six-foot wingspans and outlandishly long, flexible necks! How can you resist? I love to listen to them mutter softly to each other when they’re on the ground. And the music they make, flying together in those long, raggedy threads unspooling across the sky? Magic. Wild. Makes me want to sing along.
One reason for my swan affection is a book by E.B. White, The Trumpet of the Swan. Published in 1970, this children’s classic features Louis, a kind, pragmatic, mute trumpeter swan. The lack of a voice is a big challenge to such a majestic bird, and the book relates the adventures of Louis and his father to help Louis learn to communicate and fulfill his swan destiny. Louis is also aided by a human boy, Sam Beaver.
It’s an endearing story of reverence for nature, friendship, and ethics, which are three of White’s favorite themes; besides Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, he also published loads of poetry, was one of America’s greatest essayists, and co-authored the classic writer’s reference work, The Elements of Style.
So nab or borrow a child, curl up by the fire, and start reading to each other. If no child is available, don’t let that stop you. And meanwhile, a Mary Oliver poem to honor our own swans. —-Mary Beth
Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
© Mary Oliver. From The Paris Review # 124, Fall, 1992