Playmate Of The Sunbeams

by davidbunch - Date: 2010-07-23 - Word Count: 486 Share This!

In 'Selborne', his book on swallows, White says in early spring, he would notice a few of them about. They would disappear again if the weather happened to turn cold and stormy, and he concluded that they had gone back to their place of hibernation. In his Midsummer Idyl father has a word to say on the subject: "How curious that men should ever have got the notion that this airy, fairy creature, the playmate of the sunbeams, spends the winter hibernating in the mud of ponds and marshes, the bedfellow of newts and frogs and turtles!"

However, incredible as it may seem, the belief was widespread through all Nature writing-beginning with Pliny. In his book on ornithology, written nearly two thousand years ago, he says: "Swallows, the only flesh-eating birds among those that have not hooked talons, also migrate in the winter months, but they only retire to places near at hand, making for the sunny gulleys in the mountains and they have before now been found moulted and bare of feathers."

On the authority of Francis Bacon, he says that swallows "live and sleep out the whole winter without meat in hollow trees." As though this were not enough he adds: "I think 'tis not to be doubted that swallows have been taught to carry letters betwixt two armies." Although he does later say that "swallows which are not seen to flie in England for six months of the year" do migrate to a hotter climate, many thousands staying behind to spend the winter in hollow trees. He compares them to eels, that live six months in the mud "without stirring up or down, and this the eel and swallow do as not being able to endure winter weather."

Emphatically on the other side, we have the word of New York's famous governor, DeWitt Clinton, who wrote, in 1822, that this idea that swallows spent the winter in the mud at the bottom of ponds and lakes was ridiculous-more, impossible! He wrote this after a trip on Cayuga Lake, where he saw thousands of swallows skimming over the water, publishing the fact in a travel book over the name of "Hivernicus." Truly the swallow is one of our most beloved birds, known to the poets and sages and prophets of all peoples. They are children of the summer air, living on the wing, reaping an invisible harvest over the fields and pastures as though they dined on sunbeams. Just before they left for the South they came to revisit the nest in the loft, bringing their friends, fifteen or twenty of them. They flew happily about, twittering and dancing in the air, going in to the nest and out, the sun glinting on the bright steel-blue of their backs and wings. When they left, I knew that autumn was drawing near. But there is always the hope they will return as barn guests another year.

Related Tags: winter weather, endure winter, six months, endure winter weather, swallows skimming, swallows spent

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