Dartmoor: swallows

Yesterday they had gone. But this morning I realised they had not. They’d only been touring and trawling the moors! What relief.  Here one day, gone the next and then returning as if they wondered what the fuss was all about. They vanish for hours at a time as they hunt further afield or fly up very high. For a half day I begin to think they have gone but they turn up again in mixed flocks with martins, all swooping in patterns like the symbol for infinity or else they sit on the wires, preening themselves nonchalantly.

But what did swallows do before there were telephone or electricity lines for them to perch on in September? A friend asked me this and we supposed they sat on the ridges of roofs.  Lines constitute the perfect place for them to congegrate.

Only a few weeks ago some of them were embryos inside eggs. Then, bald little hatchlings … and only a couple of weeks later they were fledging and on the point of leaving their nest to join the other young swallows in the sky. Now they must be feeling the lengthening nights, tasting the chill in the air: something is drawing them to leave what they know for what they don’t.  An instinct makes them fly thousands of miles as though somehow they already know the way.  Are the stars imprinted on their minds?

Yesterday I heard a chiff chaff when I thought they had already left. On the moors meadow pipits have been flocking for a few weeks: they move lower down for the winter but at the moment they are still here.  September is like this: a boundary on the edge between summer and winter.  August is the quietest month as far as birds are concerned but our garden now has two robins who are challenging each other with sweet-sounding song. A wren sings morning and evening in a minor key.

Too early yet for redwings and fieldfares but the red berries on the moor are ready and plentiful. Not a sign of a severe winter ahead but of the good spring that we had.

WS Merwin wrote quite a few bird poems, often expressing something about ourselves. This one seems perfect for the day we now find ourselves in ie post- Scottish Referendum.


Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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6 Responses to Dartmoor: swallows

  1. Stella Wulf says:

    Lovely blog this week, Becky. Sadly, we’ve had two flycatchers fly into our windows this week. It’s always a problem when the sun is lower in the sky. Happily, one survived. The nuthatches are back and there is a noticeable increase in bird song. September is a beautiful month, serene and full of promise. Love that poem, Unknown Bird!

  2. Flycatchers… How amazing. Glad one is okay. But maybe they were a pair? (sometimes I put something large in the window to put them off when there seems to be a pattern of it.). Nice to hear from you, Stella.

  3. E.E. Nobbs says:

    Fine poem. There is a great deal in it. Enjoyed your post, Becky. I will miss the blue heron when she or he leaves the salt marsh trail we both have been walking most days all spring & summer. But the heron will probably stick around 2 or 3 weeks yet…

  4. By the very next day they and indeed gone for the winter, Elly. Not a sign of them since. Glad the heron hangs about but where does he go to?

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