Here's a long piece about the barn swallows that came to live on our porch this summer -- with pictures! It's about a month old, in case my mentions of time throughout don't make sense.
The day after our wedding, my husband and I picked up my dog from the kennel, packed up my old apartment, and set out for our first home in New Mexico. My bouquet hung above the back passenger door by a bundle of rubber bands, and the fish we bought together on a whim one afternoon swayed to and fro inside a used risotto container on my lap. Josh’s family and our friend Zach caravanned with us through the night and still gave us that first moment alone – the one when we opened our front door and saw where we would establish our first home as a family. The fact that it would be a temporary home, just for the duration of our MFA program, did not detract from this moment.
It’s been a year since our arrival to the Land of Enchantment. We have studied fiction and poetry. We have investigated the flora of our quiet neighborhood. We have met many people and made a few friends. And looking back on our first year of marriage, it’s safe to say that we’ve grown with each other, turning our compounded new beginnings into a memorable starting point for the rest of our lives together.
Still, if we could change things, we’d probably want more money, more friends, less mileage between ourselves and our family, and at least a hint of stability added to the future job and publishing markets. While we’ve fully fledged into our relationship, there’s always that undercurrent that reminds us this living situation is temporary and one day we won’t have the safety bubble of what is already a paycheck-to-paycheck survival plan as graduate students. We write about the world, but we have to take a financial risk every time we want to drive to visit our families, let alone take a short trip to escape the heat or find a little inspiration. It doesn’t help that employment opportunities for the summer are hard to come by, which people in far worse positions with far more responsibilities know all about. For us, it’s not a rough life by any stretch. We read a lot. We write. Josh started making our bread and pasta, perfecting his culinary skills with curiosity and great patience. Three weeks after posting grades for my spring composition class, I finished the novel I started writing before our move, which was such an overwhelming accomplishment I didn’t sleep that night. Yet, we’ve spent the summer in a transition period, a welcome break but a fairly uneventful one, and in some ways, while we are happy and proud to have a solid first year under our belt, it feels a little like a sneak peek at the next two years while we finish school – possibly longer after that. This isn’t our forever home. It’s the house we’ll try to show our children one day, just the way my father did when he moved us to Midland, driving aimlessly around a vaguely familiar neighborhood where things have changed and landmarks have been forgotten, promising over and over that it’s just a block away. By June, I was bored and desperate for something new in my life.
It’s funny how the universe sometimes gives you what you need. One night I let the dog out to the backyard and joined her on the porch to appreciate the cool night air, and when I looked up to the stars, I found two little birds perched on the rafter of our porch ceiling. With a surge of excitement, I yelled for Josh to come out, and that was when we found the mud nest directly above our porch door. The birds did not fly away. They didn’t flinch when we fetched the camera and took several pictures for fear they’d never stay still like that again or, worse, leave altogether.
When we went back inside, I set to work tracking the name of the birds down, comparing our uploaded pictures to hundreds of Google image search results and descriptions of regional birds on the Audubon website. I tried “gunmetal teal” and “russet” and “caramelized cream” to articulate the colors of their little stout bodies. I looked for birds with black eye masks and forked tails. Eventually, I came across an entry about barn swallows, and there they were! I didn’t have to send my photo to a bird expert on the internet after all.
The obsession started that night and didn’t stop for days. I listened to recordings of their various calls and twitters. I parsed out the differences between them and their relatives like cliff swallows and tree swallows. I watched YouTube clips of adults feeding their young, desperate to witness something so cool myself. While Josh kneaded dough in the kitchen, I called out, “They don’t have to stop flying to drink. They just skim the surface of lakes or bird baths.” I called out, “They might have lived here last year because they return to old nest sites.” I told him how many eggs they laid on average, how long the eggs took to hatch, how many days until those babies would fledge. I understood why they chose our porch – we have power lines perfect for diving from to catch insects (all they eat) and water not far away (though I sprayed down our dirt just in case they needed more mud for their nest), but I still felt special that they’d picked us. I was so excited to have a completely new topic of study and extensive resources available to me. I am a student through and through, and these two little birds nesting who attached their nest to our house gave me a reason to ask questions, take notes, and learn. Suddenly, the summer was wide open again.
My mother laughed when I named them – Penny and Clive – and she told me she’d never known me to be so interested in nature. I tried to explain that I’d never been the host of a nest before, I’d never been able to observe the routines of specific animals before. In the spring when a lizard squirmed into our bedroom through our broken screen and we put it back outside, there was no way to tell if it was the very same lizard that came through again the next afternoon.
But these were our birds. Penny was plump with more white feathers and nervous while Clive had a spot of blue on his breast and hardly stirred at all when we came out to see them. She spent the most time in the nest, and he returned closer to evening to perch across from her for the night. They were like pets. When they began laying eggs, one a day for five days, which we fashioned a hand mirror to the end of the mop to be able to see, they became all the more important.
As I watched them fret about their nest and as I learned more and more about their migration patterns and mating habits and relational instincts, I couldn’t help but see them as material. I knew I wanted to write about them, even loosely plotted what turned out to be typical nest-as-family metaphor-laden stories, scrapping the ideas before putting a single word down. I began documenting them with photos and video, taking notes frequently to store up for later use. It’s rare that I know while I’m experiencing something like this that it is magical and profound, and even though I didn’t know how it was those things, I knew enough to save it.
When the five eggs reached the mark when they should have started hatching, Josh’s parents and sister came to stay with us for a week. They are a family of teachers and explorers. When they asked us what there was to do in town, we shrugged and offered the flowers around the neighborhood, the birds on the porch, the hundreds of books on our shelves – nothing more than a half-mile from our house. We ended up taking a half-day hike not far outside of town, everyone armed with cameras, and visited a cave where a hermit with possible healing powers once lived and was killed. The history of this cave alone would have made the whole trip worth it, but it was really fun day. In the evening, we filled the living room to watch each person’s photos and film footage on our TV, marveling at our different perspectives on some of the same subjects and the things we had missed while investigating other parts of the hiking path. Two days later, we visited White Sands, again taking hundreds of pictures as we explored a unique environment not far from our house, again gathering in the evening to see what we saw. It was exciting to discover these places we’d never bothered to check out before, and it was lovely having our family in our home.
The same day we visited White Sands, we came home to find two baby birds hatched in the nest, their tiny purple bodies curled in together, sprouting black hair all over, huge black patches instead of open eyes. The Bowens were leaving soon, so I was thrilled to be able to share with them what was a monumental moment to me – our birds creating new life, making these fragile babies, suspended in a simple mud and straw cup above our door! I felt proud. I was relieved, in fact, that they hadn’t missed it because I couldn’t bare the thought of missing it myself.
A couple nights before they left, Josh and his dad bar-be-qued in the backyard, and my sister-in-law and mother-in-law went about our kitchen creating a feast. At first, I didn’t notice this. I was struck with the need, suddenly, to find a letter my grandmother wrote me at least two years earlier – answers to a series of questions I’d asked her about her childhood, college, starting a family, and how the world had changed during her lifetime. I’d always meant to do something with these answers – write a story or maybe interview her further for a personal piece – but I had put the letter away and forgotten about it. By the time I found it and greedily re-read her cursive handwriting, dinner was ready, and it dawned on me that I hadn’t helped make a single item on the table. I felt embarrassed to have not offered. I felt even more embarrassed by the fact that, even if I had offered, I wouldn’t have known how to do even the simplest things like make the sweet tea or prepare the potatoes. At the table, I found myself bragging about my grandmother. I guess I wanted to establish some kind of connection to this family that I had become a part of and very much felt accepted into. I wanted to show them that I loved my grandmother, that she was an exceptional woman who paved the way for my aunts and uncles and cousins and me to be hard-working, compassionate, helpful people.
When I stopped talking, I sat back and watched them fall into their usual family dinner talk, and while I liked to be at that table with them, I also felt a prick of self-pity – I had no real model for this growing up, just as I had missed the boat on culinary skills and had spent much of my childhood playing in my room instead of mingling with a large family and close community. I wasn’t hard-wired to be social for more than a day or two at a time, even with a small, familiar group. I wanted to help do things, but I didn’t know how. It began to press down on me that I was not like them. I had fine personality traits for my family of ambitious, liberal women, but I did not have the simplest traits that were instilled in my husband and his siblings from birth – to cook for others, to rally around new brides or families experiencing crises, to act on behalf of other people without hesitation and without the burden of obligation. Instead, I knew how to talk over coffee about education issues and books, how to take a car-load of cousins to a holiday movie, how to laugh and shout from the kids’ table at Thanksgiving and move the party to the living room for games afterward – all of these things on holidays, one fabulously fun, full day at a time.
After dinner, I was the last out of the kitchen, taking charge of the dishes and then pondering with a sense of acute panic whether it was okay to leave the dishes that didn’t fit in the washer to finish the next day. In my own home, my own kitchen, I was unsure. Naturally, this led to a melt-down when Josh and I went to bed. I cried over my lack of social skills. I defended my upbringing and the fact that I wasn’t a selfish person, only under-qualified. I grew up with a huge extended family that I loved spending time with on the rare occasions I was able to, but I was never a part of a community – of church members, of women, of anything. The more I talked, the emptier I felt. Since moving to New Mexico, I had not found the writing community I’d hoped for either. I had spent months writing in near isolation, had been timid to make new friends, had found conversations following class lacking my passion for writing and reading. I’d withdrawn from social events, sure I would not find the kinds of friends I’d had before – I preferred a few close friends over a whole group of surface-level ones; by then, I needed a soul-mate kind of friend to make me leave home. I’d found more to love in nature and the hugeness of our New Mexico sky than I’d found in people, becoming even more introspective, lonely, and reclusive than I’d ever been before.
In addition to my retreat from social situations, last year brought on my first real bout of writing trouble. Every single story I submitted for publication got rejected. My workshop experiences were less productive than previous ones. I made adjustments to what I wrote about and how I wrote, thinking I must be doing it all wrong to keep hitting walls, and this sent me into a long period of second-guessing myself and truly believing I’d made a mistake choosing this path of school and writing. It wasn’t until I returned to working on my novel in May that these woes settled some, and by the time I finished the draft of my manuscript, I was back to believing in my choices, but totally depleted in terms of inspiration and desire to write anything new.
Barn swallows, I learned, make their entire nests one pellet at a time, taking anywhere from one-thousand to fourteen-hundred individual trips to and from their mud source. They are monogamous but social birds. They hunt with other swallows, and their first brood, after fledging, tends to stick around to help feed the second brood of the season. They migrate and often return to same nesting location year after year, even the same nest, as long as it’s still viable.
One night while Josh and I were watching TV, after three of the eggs had hatched, we heard an urgent bird call. It sounded cannily close to an ambulance alarm. It had become a bit of a joke already that I was the bird protector – I’d read about offering baked eggshell pieces to replenish the mother’s calcium and about providing mud close by and extra dog or human hair – so when I sprang up and ran to the back door, I was partially joking. Often, when Clive returned, he and Penny would squawk noisily at each other, and I assumed this was a variation of that greeting. Still, I reached the door, followed excitedly by our confused dog, and when I looked out the dark window, there was a large orange cat, scaling the brick wall at chest height, slipping closer and closer to the nest. In a panic, I fumbled with the locks and flipped on the light just as I managed to throw the door open. Out ran the dog with no clue what was going on as the cat sprang away and disappeared. Poor Penny flew in circles, squawking, too agitated to perch and rest. I spent the next hour reading about cat deterrents and declared to my husband before bed that we needed to buy fox urine.
We left two days later to visit my family in Midland, Texas. Much of the time we were away, I worried that the cat would return and eat the chicks. I was also disappointed that I would miss seeing the three babies sprout feathers and that the other two eggs might hatch late while we were gone. When we returned home, I ran straight to the back door and found a chick that had fallen from the nest and died. It was twice the size the babies had been when we left with ragged brown and black down all over its body.
Over the next two days, we ascertained that there were just two babies that had made it; the other eggs hadn’t hatched. One was quite a bit larger than the other, and over the next week, the down on his topside was replaced with smooth black and blue feathers, and he sprouted puffy white-gold underside feathers. I named him Bruce. The smaller one was Little Sal, and he continued to grow about three or four days behind Bruce. Not much later than our return, Bruce took his first flight, landing on the perch in the rafters where we’d first spotted his parents, and he stayed there for most of the day, hunkered down low and tentatively sliding back and forth across its length.
From the first night we found two little birds on our back porch to the day both chicks left the backyard for a full day, I accumulated a couple hundred photos worth keeping and a few hours of edited video. (We set the camera to run for the length of its memory on a tripod several evenings to capture feedings and other cute behavior, like how the chicks stretch their wings, peck playfully at each other between feedings, and balance on the rim of the nest to relieve themselves over the edge.) I knew that I had to accept the fact that they would all leave one day, and from what I’d read, that day would be fairly soon. I was resigned to the idea that Penny and Clive would not have a second brood on our porch, that maybe they were too young for two, or maybe they’d already had one elsewhere and had come to us for a safer nesting place. Briefly one afternoon, I got my hopes up after seeing new mud pellets attached to their perch, but after extending the ledge about half an inch, they’d stopped construction. I guess they added on for the safety of the young ones, or they just needed a little more space. Progress stopped, and I went back to counting the days left.
That was about two weeks ago.
Since then, Josh and I have celebrated our first anniversary. We have purchased books for our fall classes. We have attended meetings on campus and prepared our syllabi for the classes we’re teaching. Summer is still hot as ever, but the feel of summer is waning, and I wonder where it went, when it stopped crawling forward ever so slowly. Not much has happened in these last few months, and yet, my world has turned magical. It’s a magic just for us – and even then, it feels as though it’s just for me. I’ve written two new stories in the past few weeks and, without delving intentionally into my barn swallow material, birds have turned up in both, each time in an attempt to create quiet, reflective, awe-full moments. While writing these scenes, I felt an ache to explain, to infuse some rare charm, some acute clarity into them.
I’m reminded of our first day in our new home about a year ago. During the walk through our back yard, I found two dead birds, which was unsettling at the time. I was more worried that the dog would try to eat them than anything else, but I also didn’t like the idea of death so close. When we found the nest this summer, I noticed for the first time that there were a few smudged areas where other nests had clearly been removed. Considering what I’ve learned about the federal protection of swallow nests, this bothered me. Now, though, I have another reason to be upset that the crew that readied our house last year likely removed the nests right before we moved in: in the past two weeks, our barn swallows have modified their nest with a higher rim and more materials, and for the past four days, they’ve laid four new eggs. This possibly means that the nest was removed during a couple’s nesting season last year, maybe even with babies or eggs in the nest. While I hate to think that this happened, I am impressed by what our birds have learned during this nesting period. For their second brood, they used more straw and fortified the height and base of their nest. On the left side, the side susceptible to cats, they stacked grass and straw and mud so high it nearly closes off their nest to a repeat attack. It’s a small thing, but they’ve learned and adapted immediately. And they’re just little birds!
I was waiting to write deliberately about our birds until they migrated away and left their nest behind for the year. I thought it would provide a logical shape to the piece. I also thought I would know more about how I’m profoundly altered by their short stint of family-making attached to our home. Then they started their second brood, and it was (and is) a pleasant surprise to have more time with them. I have had a lot of time to think about them and what it means that they’re here, and I have a list of possibilities. Generally, I think they came to us this summer to enchant my world when I most needed something new, personal, and creative. While I haven’t written a lot since completing my novel, the hours I’ve spent researching and watching and documenting our birds have been introspective ones – they have been moments to grow within, to witness life that happens all around without my notice. It’s one of the simplest things in the world, the creation of life – and it happens every day in some form or another. But it is also a miracle. It is unfathomable to me sometimes that two little birds constructed a home from mud, created little white speckled eggs which turned into breathing, eating, growing chicks, and that those babies grew up to be beautiful blue, black, and red-orange birds who can fly and hunt for themselves survive in the world and still return to be with their family to sleep. The protective instincts of the parents, too – the sheer courage of a half-ounce bird to protect her babies against the sure threat of a giant cat in the night – baffles but inspires.
I could draw parallels between the efforts of these little birds to the act of writing a novel or, more obviously, to starting a family. After all, eventually they will leave behind this home for the year or even for good if they find a better nesting site next June, just as we will eventually leave our home here in the Land of Enchantment. They have learned and grown and adapted to their environment and been brave in the face of danger, just as a human couple has to maintain a marriage and adapt together. I did see these birds as representatives of both my writing life and my married life, but I also see them, now, more simply as an example of the dangers and miracles of life in general, the way we sometimes find ourselves in trouble alone, desperate to fend off the threat with whatever we’ve got, and how we sometimes make such beautiful, impossible creations and send them out into the world and the world is better for it. While we are sometimes social, we are also individuals, and we need help from our mates, from our friends, even from helpful strangers sometimes, just as we need time to settle in and retreat from the world. This is why we attach ourselves to others, even if we also construct walls around ourselves.
I’m grateful to have a little more time with Penny and Clive and their new little family. I’ve prepared myself for their departure, joked about empty nest syndrome, but I’m not really ready for them to go. Maybe after this second round it will be a little easier. Maybe I myself will be ready then to go back into the world, refreshed and inspired and able to give the fragile pieces of myself once more after my summer of swallows, my retreat into a lovely little world of charm.