The Monthly Salon: June
When swallows return ...
Writers sometimes receive interesting feedback from readers which can make them look anew at their own work. A few years back, this happened to me. I had an email from someone who had read my first two novels, The Wake and Beast and who wanted to tell me how much he liked them. In particular, he said, he was thrilled to find a writer who truly understood ‘the importance of birdsong.’
I forget exactly what he said now, but the gist was that birdsong, in his view, was an overlooked but vital accompaniment to the human experience. He was thrilled, therefore, to find that I had punctuated my novels with birdsong, or with birds themselves, which he had noticed appearing at key moments in the plots.
If he was thrilled, I was surprised. I hadn’t noticed this at all. But I went back to my books and, sure enough, he was right. Birdsong - and birds - kept appearing at crucial moments. It was one of those experiences which I think any fiction writer could tell you about: the sudden realisation that your book, even as you write it, is doing something independent of you. In a very real way, you are not so much its creator as its steward. Your job is not to invent a story: it is to be a vessel for it.
When it came to writing my third novel, the last in this trilogy, I had this reader in mind. It was partly his influence that led me to deliberately structure the book around birds. In Alexandria, the paganish, post-human people a thousand years from now are bird worshippers. In particular, they have a prophecy they cleave to, which seems to be about to be fulfilled: When Swans return, Alexandria will fall. If you want to find out what it means - well, you know what to do.
Something about birds returning fills me with hope. It can be good to focus on hope, and birds, and nature, especially if you write the kind of stuff I do. Swans don’t return to the farmland in county Galway where I live, but swallows do, every year, and it’s a continued astonishment to see these delicate things come back, perhaps from southern Europe, perhaps from Africa, to arrive at the exact same place they departed from a year ago. A friend of mine, nature writer Charles Foster, who recently wrote a book about swifts, says that when he sees these birds returning his reaction is one of relief and joy. The world still works! he thinks. The world does. I like to remind myself that human cultures rise and fall but the green fuse continues to burn, and will burn long after our latest iteration of civilisation is back in the dust.
Mind you, the world remains a risky place, even for swallows. The pair that nested last year in the eaves of my writing cabin returned this year to find that a bold wren was squatting in the nest they had made. Swallows make mud nests, but wrens prefer moss and leaves. This particular wren has retrofitted last year’s swallow nest with moss and is merrily refusing to leave, despite a few screeching aerial dogfights:
Eventually the swallows gave up and built a new nest in our carport instead, on a little ledge I put up especially for this purpose. We’re awaiting the peeping of the chicks with bated breath:
The world still works. This is what I am thinking right now. But this salon is your area, so you may want to talk about something other than swifts and wrens. Over to you.
A note to subscribers: I will be away for the next two weeks on holiday with my family, so my next essay will appear in early July. I will be sending some other things your way in the meantime. I hope June is good to you, and I hope you’ll forgive the delay. A couple of weeks without essay writing will be good for me. I’ll be back, refreshed I hope, in a few weeks’ time.