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Encounters of a Loving Nature

an essay about swans by Sue Holloway

EarthLight Magazine #47, Fall/Winter 2002/03

 [ Spring [

Like Pan with a garland of green draped around his neck, Fione, the male swan, arrives first. He rises, exuberantly waving his wings, spraying water all over. Late February, yet spring is here, in the synchronous dance of the swans. He lifts his head, then she; it seems they are as one, dipping, lifting; preening; one side, then another. They face each other, creating a heart.

He spreads his wings, fanning them, whirring: Whoop, Whoop; and this watery world changes. White looping circles bear blue centers surrounded by black mass, as if alive and fertile. The forms sway toward shore like swan’s necks, images of children of the future, uncountable generations.

[ [ [

The idea of a responsive Universe intrigues me. When I look down and spot the swan, if I signal with my heart that I’m coming out, he always comes to the dock. If he is moving away, he turns right around if I signal.

As evening falls, sea and sky are cloaked in sun’s last moments, magenta and apricot. The beauty emerges also in the swans’ upraised wings. Later, I dream of gathering flowers, a bouquet in purple and peach hues–the sunset, held in my heart; like in the swans’ wings. Here is my hope: to trust, like the swan, in our emergent humanity. Everything beautiful in its time.

[ Summer [

The swans are bringing two tiny babies. Fione guards carefully, as the family pads out of muck flats to sun on the beach. When a dog approaches, he stretches up his neck and trumpets. One baby imitates him, as it clamors toward the sea. Downy and light, the chick can scamper fast. It seems enthusiastic, even when fleeing!

[ [ [

For days, they have not appeared; the cygnets are gone. The female floats randomly in the distance. Both swans are wrenching out their feathers, an act of mutilation which makes them vulnerable, as they cannot fly. Fione’s wings had just grown in, perfect, like satin. Now they are in tatters, like a window painted with frost.

Feathers are strewn everywhere. I gather some and brush their softness against my cheek, sharing in the grieving.

Seeing their suffering, my sense of "swan" is changing. No longer is this a romanticized, serene creature. Each is an individual with a personality and history; each has a unique way of communicating and responding.

Birds Eye View  --  Artwork courtesy of Susan Cohen Thompson  --  Click on image to visit artist's web site

The swans know me, bring me to their world, and it becomes also my own. Today, when the swans come, I find myself doing "swan talk," responding to their greeting. He lifts his head emphatically, Hun humnh. The sounds dip and rise, round. Hers follow, similar pattern but more brief. Lifting my chin also, curvy, soft vowels float from my throat. Hehn hernhm.

I can feel anticipation in the swan’s body, water sloshing as he shifts back and forth on his feet, preparing to reach toward my hand. From the swan’s motion, the water moves and with it, the light. It pulses up and down the swan’s neck, rippling over his body and mine.

My eyes shift to the simple whole grains in the bread. Brought with loving attentiveness, the giving of bread becomes entree to a divine mystery–a wild animal leaving the saneness and safety of freedom to interact with me, a human.

Until now, I considered communion as rare and holy; suddenly I see it as part of this earthly world of gurgles and tail waggles. My hand touches the swan’s bill, as he hums contentedly.

In Year of Grace, Andrew Greeley quotes Bishop Shea, describing faith as "the confidence that the world is basically supportive, that we have the internal and external resources to cope with tragedy and suffering." I am learning from the swans how to cultivate that wisdom.

[ [ [

In Kinship of All Life, J. Allen Boone reads to an intelligent dog; the book inspires me to read to Fione. I decide to recite a poem, "Earth Blessing."

He moves slightly away, as if puzzled. I’ve never done this before, so perhaps it feels strange to him. Especially since Fione is a poem; why am I bringing him one that I made up? And why isn’t Fione in this poem? I change it from "may the birds feather your heart to soften sorrow" to "may the Great Swan feather your heart..."

But Fione remains unexcited. I drop the project, and prepare to go; it is extremely low tide, and I am not prepared to wade in the muck. Promising to return later, I turn at the water’s shallow edge, where the moon’s reflection fractures into elusive forms; Fione, a part of the scene. Playfully, I bid adieu: "Good bye, Fione, dancin’ in the moon." He rises and shimmies, and comes right over! I have found a poem that Fione enjoys.

[ [ [

Concerned about my daughter, who is leaving for Michigan, I feel exhausted. While doing yoga, I fall into a meditative sleep. The image of Fione appears, as if in a dream. He looks at me from the side and front, his presence so strong that I half-woke, wondering if he could be down below. I look out; there he is!

Swimming slowly, back and forth, he looks at me intently, as if he has something he wants to communicate. Suddenly–has he said a prayer? If so, it has surely been answered–a wide band of brilliant aquamarine light appears around his neck and face. It is the most compassionate light I have ever experienced, vivid and angelic; healing.

[ Autumn [

It is raining so I greet Fione from my window, with an apology: "I can’t come out." But it’s sad to see him turn away, so I decide to go; I’ll just need a tarp and umbrella.

At high tide, our faces and eyes are a foot apart. Water collects in the umbrella and it pours in a torrent beside Fione, who moves back, taken by surprise.

On the cement slabs, raindrops land silently and slip into a fine stream. But in the sea, raindrops fall, dancing back up again on the surface, to join with others. Water is not just coming down, but going, in large oval droplets, holding white light. In the distance, a heavy blue mist rolls by, muting the islands; softening my own edges, quieting the busy mind.

[ Winter [

In fierce winds, gusting up to 50 mph, Fione comes alone. Spartina grasses, now copper, billow as the wind and waves push Fione into the logs. Pellets scatter, pelting him, nearly grazing his eyes. Waves wash up in whitecaps, which break over him. Fione is surfing!

[ [ [

10 p.m. The swans feed below, in full moonlight. Luminous, yet they make earthy sounds, very physically present as I offer bread. This night, reality is a dream; I can see only the beauty of the swans, with the sea dissolved in darkness. Twinned, they move in unison, each floating exactly as the other, turning the bill identically, same neck position. The sea takes on a golden tone.

Inside, pulsed with these images, I sleep. I had been listening to Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus," and it plays in my dreams. But a sweet song cuts in, delicate golden bells. Then two swans appear, in blue light. One lifts her wings to wave at me, joyful. The golden bells, tone of moon on sea; the ethereal, also merry.

[ [ [

With a minus-zero wind chill, the viscous sea tinkles, as Fione wriggles through the shale-like slush. Arriving alone, he collapses on shore, to eat ravenously. The tide rises quickly; slush covers the pellets. So Fione moves up into the grasses, stiff like straw, and tipped with thick plumes of ice. He seems exhausted. I kneel, helping to scour the ground for every grain.

[ [ [

Sending long, blue-tinged rays, the sun peers through a great dark cloud, after six days of storms. Far out on the ice, swans appear. It has been over a week since I have seen them and brought them food, in this frozen world.

The female rises and walks, slowly; patiently, her neck crooked. She moves toward Fione, who rises, slowly pacing toward his mate. It is difficult going, and the birds rest frequently. But they wave their tails and shimmy, as if pleased.

Meeting, they face each other, as the sun sends a golden ribbon beyond the ice cap. The swans touch bills, then dip their heads, as if scooping something; though there is nothing but slushy ice. In synchrony, they lift their bills to the sky, over and over. Whatever one does, the other also does. Occasionally, they stand, lifting necks to the sky, in patient, artful motion.

In the enigmatic dance, like a prayer, the swans affirm their reverence for life. I think of the words of Thomas Berry, in The Great Work: "Every being declares itself to the entire Universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings."

Suddenly, the common place between them springs into sapphire light. Divine benediction? Is this how we, too, interface with God? Simultaneously, the joyful swans are engulfed in light. Heaping Gaelic blessings, I thank the swans for the rare and precious gift.   ###

 


Sue Holloway lives in Stony Creek, Connecticut. She is author of the nonfiction work Swan in the Grail (1999).


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