Hope is the Thing with Feathers

by Jen Jackson on October 12, 2010

The violet hour belongs to swallows.

This is the evening span when canyon walls glow with an interior luminosity, when the setting sun simply cannot account for the wash of colors across the land — colors that exist for this one expansive moment each day, hues that Crayola finds impossible to ensnare in wax.

This is the hour when light dances out its last breath before darkness descends, and its sweet death throes enliven the world.

And this is the hour of the swallows. Is it any wonder they swoop in circles of such ecstasy?

I have my favorite swallow-viewing grounds near my desert home, places I specifically go for the aerial show and the communion with small, untethered creatures. These places are my air-show grandstands, islands of sandstone high up in the ether, outcroppings that hoist me into the land of wingbeats and wind. It is on these pedestals that I sit in order to look swallows in the eye.

We can and we do share gazes, so curious are these avian marvels. They approach me and hover, staring at the bumbling landbound invader sharing their space. Eye contact occurs, the human side wonders at the rarity of such a simple moment between species, and then the passerine participant

moves into a dip or dive or twirl, requiring another hit of airborne joy before sating its curiosity anew.

The eye of a swallow holds a brightness amidst its blackness, speaking to the species’ immense capacity for bliss.

Perhaps swallows subsist simply on air — and joy — so effortlessly do they fly and play. A life of such seeming ease must require little sustenance in the form of matter-borne calories. Spirit, breath, air, wind — these, I’m

sure, are the main components of the swallow diet. Insect-catching is mere pretext for their dances in the ether.

They make little sound as they rush through their breezy milieu on lithe wings. Only the slicing of air is heard, the sky seemingly rent to pieces with the sound. It is as if the swallows’ flight cuts through this space, creating an opening to the lighter world hiding behind this sometimes heavy one, and we could maybe escape to it, if only we were fast enough to hit the seam that rides the edges of wingtips and tail-feathers.

Such a sky, shredded by delicate and breathing daggers, this is hope’s home. In fact, the continual existence of the wild — whether it is bound up in skyward feathers or corner-dwelling cobwebs — all of this is hope embodied, a perseverance against the odds. And in this, we find that hope is accessible. We can reach its source — that wild seam — because it is our ground. Wildness, hope, feathers—they’re all made of the same resilient stuff. And in times of suffering, we find that our hearts and souls are made of it, too. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul…”

Even at the airport recently, amidst the travelers’ milieu of madness — swallows.

These were not the violet-green evening-dwellers of my home, but they were swallows, nonetheless, hunting and playing above the tarmac and engine noise. They flew in stark contrast to the lumbering planes jockeying for position on the runway. By comparison, our answer to the problem of gravity seems so clumsy and graceless.

They buzzed the windows where I sat, forked tails silhouetted against the smoggy mountains. Their maneuvering was precise, elegant, spontaneous — a kind of weightlessness we can only dream about. Next to all our necessary accoutrements for flight — the literal and figurative baggage that accompanies us in our skyward travels — the swallows appeared as pure, unadulterated joy in motion.

And I was suffused with that same joy as the surprise of the wild infiltrated an otherwise sterile landscape.

I was reminded of Gary Snyder at that moment, a man with an unwavering faith in wildness. Even as many environmentalists — myself included — decry the destruction of wilderness, the end of nature, the silence of all that is holy, Snyder holds faith. And hope. He writes, “Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away. A ghost wilderness hovers around the entire planet…”

For Snyder, wildness refuses to be extinguished, despite our every attempt to send it along without a return address. It lives on in mould and seeds, spiders and raccoon packs. “It is everywhere,” he says. Even above the tarmac at Salt Lake City International Airport.

This encounter acted as a reminder: In being open to wildness, we will find it. Perhaps under the kindling pile, between tiles in the bathroom or along a busy thoroughfare. I say this not in ignorance of the havoc we wreak on our environment — the subduing and subdividing of our wilderness, the incessant razing and excavating in pursuit of energy and economic development, the toxins we unleash for the sake of a stronger plastic bag or a pineapple in Maine in the winter — but I say this as someone who understands that, in grieving for the battered earth beneath our feet, we must also constantly ride the wings of hope. When we lose touch with that wild seam of hope, then we become crushed under the weight of lost ground.

Thus, the tiny bodies of swallows carry me along when faith is in short supply.

Hope is the thing with feathers …

Driving through northern California on a warm June evening — one car among two straight lines of many — I came upon an enormous swarm of barn swallows, all forked tails and finesse, swooping through and under and around the flight paths of one another. There were easily 50 birds in this natural cloud of insecticide, hunting and playing in easy unity.

I slowed the vehicle to better absorb the multiplicity of rusty breasts and blue backs, the riot of feathered confetti at the roadside. They emulated the gnat swarms they preyed upon, mirroring the gifts of life that sustained them.

I turned back to the road and observed the straight lines of vehicles and asphalt beyond and behind me, the unnatural order

to it all. I wondered how we lost our ability to emulate and honor all that brings us sustenance, energy and life. When did we turn the mirror upon ourselves — rather than outward —Âand become preoccupied with our own small images?

Another evening, lying on the sandstone surface of a swallow-viewing sky-island, enjoying the swooping curiosity of joyful creatures, my literary mind struggled with terms to describe the agility and precision of swallows in flight. I kept reaching for metaphors drawn from aviation or the military — images drawn from man-made machinery.

Now, in retrospect, I am thankful for an inadequate military vocabulary, for these words are ill suited to describe wild perfection. It is a substitution of the imitation for the original — like calling microwaved Velveeta fondue, or tearing down the forest to build a church, a house of God.

It is a reminder to stop looking in the mirror, to recognize how much fuller the world is beyond the human reflection. We live in a vastness that stretches beyond the reaches of words, an idea the writer in me will someday accept. And rejoice.

I have never seen a swallow on the ground. I have never seen one walk, hop or otherwise perambulate. From my experience, they are entirely airborne. I know they eat on the fly, drink on the wing and even copulate in mid-twirl. Males attract mates in shows of aerial prowess. Air, simply stated, is their main habitat. In fact, swallow feet are not even designed for walking; these birds come into this world equipped with short legs, partially fused toes and an innate sense of how to get around the stifling tenacity of gravity’s pull. They gave up their terrestrial ties long ago in evolutionary history, preferring instead to soar beyond their own shadows’ reach.

Yet we, for all that we’ve gained while ascending the evolutionary ladder — our immense capacity for creativity and ingenuity, our complex social systems, our philosophical and scientific traditions — we’ve also abandoned a great deal along the way. Most of us come into this world and go out of it without an intimate knowledge of the earth beneath our feet, how these soils are the basis of our stories and our sustenance. We no longer read the pages of landscape for

survival and identity. We’ve lost our sense of connection and belonging to the rich tapestry of life cradling us. The scientific quest to understand our world — and control it — has only served to distance ourselves from the ground of our existence.

We, like the swallows, have given up our terrestrial ties, but in a different manner and to a different end. Instead of soaring beyond the reach of shadow, we hold our shadow tightly inside, plucking its smoky feathers and rendering it tame, flightless and lacking in hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul…

What if we allowed that shadowy creature within to soar beyond our science and our sorrow? Would its absence gift us with the language of hope?

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” said Rumi. The swallows’ way is through flight, kneeling in midair. For us it is the expression of love — love of one’s partner, of one’s kin, one’s work, this land, this life.

Love is perhaps the wildest act in which humans still engage. It is our deepest bow to Other. And in its defiance of reason — the way in which we rededicate our hearts to love despite our accumulated losses — herein lies love’s ever-hopeful wildness.

Like the cobwebs, moulds, rodents and roaches that wildly persist at the periphery of otherwise ordered lives — Gary Snyder’s

“ghost wilderness” — so too endures our un-tamed pursuance of connection and communion. Despite the odds, it rides wings of hope through a landscape of loss, splitting that elusive seam between heavy and light, uniting us with the infinite and wild realm of all that we may never understand.

The violet hour and its swallows are my daily reminder to kneel and kiss this rocky desert ground that I love. And to continually and wildly hope.

Jen Jackson writes from Moab, Utah, where her vocabulary is always inadequate to the task of describing her surroundings. However, she persists, and her work can be found in numerous regional publications, including Mountain Gazette, High Country News and the now (and sadly) defunct Inside/Outside Southwest.


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lou skannon December 6, 2010 at 10:10 pm

now, this is good stuff. could-a been in the poetry sexion!

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