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Each September, thousands of Vaux's Swifts roost in the chimney of Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, a stopover on their southern migration. Crowds gather every night to watch the spectacle. As a celebration of Poetry Month in the US, we offer this poem, Swifts, by Stefania Gomez.
You can read more of Stefania's work in her book, Once I Loved a Cowboy.
This interview originally aired in April 2020.
Swifts by Stefania Gomez
Written by Mark Bramhill
Mark Bramhill: This is BirdNote.
Sometimes, birds can connect with us in surprising ways. Poet and teaching artist Stefania Gomez recently had a profound experience with Vaux's Swifts — and was inspired to write a poem about it. It starts with an epigraph from Portland Audubon:
“Each September, thousands of Vaux’s Swifts congregate in the chimney of Chapman Elementary School before they fly south for the winter. Just before dark, the swifts amass above Chapman School in a huge spiral formation and fly into the chimney to roost, giving the impression of an avian whirlpool… Vaux’s Swifts have been roosting in the Chapman School furnace chimney since 1982… Because of their concern for the birds, the students and staff decided not to turn on the furnace and endured many chilly days until the swifts left the chimney and continued on their southern migration.”
It is said they are in a dream state, swinging to and from the chimney in patterned chaos like stars, swirling and dissipating like tides of dust.
A crowd gathers, all eyes turned on the sky, on this behavior upon which we humans have no bearing, booing when a hawk swoops through the cloud of their small dark shapes, clapping when the last one has plunged into the smokestack.
For thirty nights they’ll dance and then continue southward. All we can do is watch.
We watch and the birds swirl, splaying into something beyond magic, like seafoam, high above our picnic blankets, our beer bottles, our chatter, our attempts to ascribe some mythology to this phenomenon.
So little now is sacred. So little is easy. Tomorrow I will return to a place where someone destroyed a soft feathered part of myself I offered them. There was no mercy, no reverence.
Tonight that part murmurs in the sky like a whirlpool, then dives down into the nests of ten thousand Vaux’s swifts.
Tonight there is a soft, stunned applause.
Mark Bramhill: Stefania's experience with these swifts came after a difficult time:
Stefania Gomez: So this past summer, I had my heart, like, really super broken, really just, like, stomped on. And so I went to visit my mom who lives in Portland, Oregon. And she took me to see the swifts. It was just, like, the evening activity that my mom had planned to entertain me. But I was so struck, and it wasn't my proudest moment, but, like, as soon as I got there and I saw, like, there were probably 50 people sitting on this hill, like, waiting to watch these birds fly around, I just, like, immediately started crying, just, like, truly sobbing. And, then my mom was, like, "if you cry, I'm going to cry." And I was, like, "we can't both be crying at these birds!" [Laugh]
Mark Bramhill: You can read more of Stefania’s poetry in her book, Once I Loved a Cowboy. For BirdNote, I’m Mark Bramhill.
Music: Requiem by Nico Muhly
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Sallie Bodie
Editor: Ashley Ahearn
Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone
Assistant Producer: Mark Bramhill
BirdNote’s theme was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
© 2020 BirdNote April 2020 / 2023 Narrator: Mark Bramhill
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