A fine piece in today’s Guardian Country Diary by Mark Cocker. In a poetic column about the departure of swifts from the skies above his Norfolk home as they head south on their long migration he writes, ‘Surely more than anything else in British nature, swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve. It has the certainty of a steel blade. It is shaped like a strand of cobweb weighted with dew. It has the line of the Earth’s own rim mid-ocean, and a memory of it hangs momentarily in the air like breath on a winter’s morning.’

Here’s the full article:

My summer’s highlight, as we sit in the garden most evenings, has been to watch the pre-migration flocking behaviour of our village swifts. No one knows what purpose it serves, though it’s thought to play some role in flock cohesion. Up to 30 birds were involved, all crushed into a ravelling ball of anarchy burning across the heavens. I find it all the more magnificent to know that its whole ecology is based entirely on insects, but converted to swift speed and scream.

Like the flock itself I circle around and around, but no fishing net of words seems to catch it. Could one possibly express it better as a taste? It is like red chilli crushed in a gloop of honey; the essence of all the Americas mingled with that from all Africa and Eurasia; a taste, perhaps, of Pangaea.

But what has touched me most was that, after all the other swifts migrated, a single pair was still feeding young. Their chicks must have been late and the parents lingered, and one couldn’t help but wonder – agonise, really – how it felt to be left behind after all that oneness.

The sky is now running still over Claxton, but for a while I had these singletons above our garden. There’s something curiously inelegant, almost clumsy in the way swifts fly. The wings working hard, gaffing the air, blunt-edged paddles wobbling hopelessly, and then – because it’s all part of swift treachery – out of this pantomime of effort comes that sweep away, beyond the range of my eye, and back into view, hard over the village green and in one long glide BANG! into the mole hole at the roof’s edge.

Surely more than anything else in British nature, swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve. It has the certainty of a steel blade. It is shaped like a strand of cobweb weighted with dew. It has the line of the Earth’s own rim mid-ocean, and a memory of it hangs momentarily in the air like breath on a winter’s morning.

A common swift hunting low over a Norfolk reedbed.
A common swift hunting low over a Norfolk reedbed.

The (revised) image at the head of this post is by the RSPB.

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5 thoughts on “Mark Cocker: ‘swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve’

  1. Loved the piece on Swifts. I remember being shown Swifts flying by a farmer and standing in awe of them. Very beautiful descriptive writing, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    1. You are right. As swift as a swift, this morning I googled, found an image on Wikipedia, and bunged it in. It’s an alpine swift. Correction made. Thank you!

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