One morning in December, as I lay in bed doing inventory of the day ahead, Sam rushed into the room shouting: ‘Get up! You have to get up now!’ He’d seen something on Lake Bofus, the smaller of our two lakes, that I had to see. There wasn’t time to dress, so I put my old overcoat over my nightdress, stepped into cold wellies and followed Sam across the icy fields. Silently, we made our way up the steep bank that shelters the lake on one side, Sam leading the way to an opening through the Norfolk reeds. There in front of us was a scene of such beauty and tranquility that we stood in a frozen hush of awe and wonder a swan and her two babies. Gangly adolescents really, the colour of lattes. We stared at them. They stared at us. Unperturbed, they seemed content to monitor our presence as they continued their parade of graceful, deliberate insouciance.
All week long, we went back to visit, sometimes four times a day. It confused the dogs, this ritual of going off without them, but we didn’t want anything to disturb the swans, to make them, in their innocence and serenity, feel unwelcome. We felt honoured by these beautiful wild birds who had chosen our lake. One evening, I looked up the poem by W. B. Yeats that I once knew by heart but now couldn’t remember The Wild Swans at Coole:
But now they drift on the still water Mysterious, beautiful; Among what rushes will they build, By what lake’s edge or pool Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day To find they have flown away? And then one morning, they were gone. We were sad but not as broken-hearted as we would have been if we had found bloodstained grass and white feathers, the signature of the fox who took all my call ducks. We were grateful for this interlude with these great wild birds, and we hoped they would remember our watery haven on a return journey.
We continued to brood on the swans, especially the ancient belief that the souls of poets pass into swans at their deaths. Virgil was known as the ‘Mantuan Swan’, and Homer was ‘The Swan of Meander’. Ben Jonson called Shakespeare ‘The Swan of Avon’. I don’t know if Yeats had a swan attached to his name, but in Ireland, they revere swans, and believe that if a man kills a swan he will die within the year.
The Christmas swans came back to me this week, with the news of the deaths of swans from the H5N1 strain of avian flu. This morning, the disease was confirmed in dead swans in Italy and Austria. Epide-miologists speculate that the nesting places of the migrating swans the rivers and lakes have become dumping grounds for chicken manure. And even when the manure mountains of it from intensive poultry farming isn’t dumped, it leeches into the ground water.
Conventional wisdom tells us that avian flu, like Katrina, isn’t our fault. That Nature is capricious and cruel. To me, this sounds suspiciously like the politicians who spent the past decade denying global warming. I admit that Nature is complicated: you have swans, and you have foxes and rats; you have the Sahara and you have Antarctica. But I can’t help the melancholy feeling that we, not the swans, have made a mess of the planet. The world is short on poets. Now we may be short on those majestic birds that some cultures believe embody the human soul. When the swans return, we will watch them with trembling hearts.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on February 23, 2006.