The swallows have gone, and I do not understand it. How do they arrange to depart? At one moment the birds are here, chattering in and out of the barn, arcing across the pasture. And the next moment they have vanished. Do they leave during a flight they’re already making, or do they somehow gather themselves together beforehand?
Something within them changes in response to something external, the light perhaps. It is that something within them — instinct, presumably, as opposed to what we would see as conscious thought — that I don’t understand.
Humans have always had trouble understanding instinct. If we experience it, we do not recognize it as such. Even the wisest of swallow-watchers, Gilbert White, the 18th-century ecologist and clergyman, could not decide what to make of instinct. Sometimes, he felt, it was superior in its effects to human reason, and sometimes it was obviously inferior.
It is, he wrote, “a most wonderful unequal faculty.” Marvelous as the swallow’s flight is, perhaps it’s more marvelous still that a swallow knows when it is time to fly, time to give up the nests in the barn, give up the hayloft and the new-mown pasture.
All summer long, the swallows have ganged their way out of the barn whenever I enter, as if I had no rights there. Now there is silence. I doubt that I will ever see them actually leaving. I feel a kinship with them when they swoop around my tractor, when I watch them share the twilight with the bats. But then off they go, and I won’t see them again until next spring. I’m left here wondering what the swallows know — if knowing is the right word.
Verlyn Klinkenborg writes for The New York Times.MORE IN Commentary
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