Swiftly into the night

The birds known as Vaux’s swifts are drawn to the chimney at Chapman School. I don’t know where they roosted before chimneys and smokestacks and telephone lines became commonplace, but now they flock, every September, to this brick schoolhouse in Northwest Portland. Overhead they glide and swirl, forming an ephemeral vortex. When the sky is muted and gray they resemble lively, sharp-winged silhouettes. Sometimes their flight pattern is very clear, and your eyes can follow the funnel of birds down to its spout, where many of them drop into the chimney and others spill over the side, arcing back upward to prepare for a second try. Then, after a few minutes of seemingly orderly flight, the birds will scatter again. They’ll remain overhead, like a cloud of smoke that’s been cut off from its source and disintegrated into wisps. There must be a secret signal that gets them fired up again, spiraling downward, making the chimney look like a smokestack operating in reverse.
I watched this phenomenon last weekend along with hundreds of other Portlanders. Basically, we were all there to see a flock of birds gather and then fly down a chimney, where they would go to sleep. There was no story with a build-up, climax, and ending. There was nothing sensational about it besides the momentary intrusion of a hawk, which chased away the swifts as a coyote might chase a herd of deer. It was just bedtime. Disregarding the biology and physics underlying the birds’ behavior–describing and determining their paths of flight–their activity was mundane.
It’s marvelous that this simple event draws so many pro tempore birdwatchers to the lawn of Chapman School. For at least an hour, a quiet act of nature proves to be more attractive than drinking, television, and whatever else people do with their nights–except for the ones who brought flasks or bottles of beer, as if it were a summertime beach bonfire. (I’ll treat them as outliers.) I was pleased to see so many people eager to spend an evening watching the sky. I hope that each of them was able to appreciate, at least a little, how beautiful it is to be outside and held rapt by something apart from the ritual distractions of civilized life. I hope that some of them were people who never thought nature could be entertaining unless it involved shark attacks or cute, fuzzy mammals.
Furthermore, I hope that most of them aren’t satisfied with taking only one day per year to ponder a world beyond paved streets and buildings and schedules. It’s curiosity that helps to keep us alive, and I was delighted to hear so much of it expressed that night. Children pointed at the birds and exclaimed. Adults watched the sky thoughtfully, leaned in close to their friends, and said “I wonder …”

The birds known as Vaux’s swifts are drawn to the chimney at Chapman School. I don’t know where they roosted before chimneys and smokestacks and telephone lines became commonplace, but now they flock, every September, to this brick schoolhouse in Northwest Portland. Overhead they glide and swirl, forming an ephemeral vortex. When the sky is a muted gray they resemble lively, sharp-winged silhouettes. Sometimes their flight pattern is very clear, and your eyes can follow the funnel of birds down to its spout, where many of them drop into the chimney and others spill over the side, arcing back upward to prepare for a second try. Then, after a few minutes of seemingly orderly flight, the birds will scatter again. Collectively, they’ll hover like a cloud of smoke that’s been cut off from its source and disintegrated into wisps. There must be a secret signal that gets them fired up again, sending them spiraling downward, making the chimney look like a smokestack operating in reverse.

I watched this phenomenon last weekend along with hundreds of other Portlanders. At the most basic level of description, we were there just to see a flock of birds gather ’round for bedtime. There was no story with a build-up, climax, and ending. There was nothing sensational about it besides the momentary intrusion of a hawk, which chased away the swifts as a coyote might chase a herd of deer. Disregarding the biology and physics underlying the birds’ behavior—determining and describing  their paths of flight—the activity was mundane.

It’s marvelous that this simple event draws so many pro tempore birdwatchers to the lawn of Chapman School. For at least an hour, a quiet act of nature proves to be more attractive than drinking, television, and whatever else people do with their nights. There were a few who brought liquor and beer, as if it were a summertime beach bonfire; but I’ll treat them as anomalies. I was pleased to see so many people eager to spend an evening watching the sky. I hope that each of them was able to appreciate, at least a little, how beautiful it is to be outside and held rapt by something apart from the ritual distractions of civilized life. I hope that some of them were people who never thought nature could be entertaining unless it involved shark attacks or cute, fuzzy mammals.

Furthermore, I hope that most of them aren’t satisfied with taking only one day per year to ponder a world beyond paved streets and buildings and schedules. It’s curiosity that helps to keep us alive, and I was delighted to hear so much of it expressed that night. Children pointed at the birds and exclaimed. Adults watched the sky thoughtfully, leaned in close to their friends, and began sentences with “I wonder ….” I rested my head on the grass and felt soothed.

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