Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Another Memory of Richard Burns

"Return" Clay Mono Print by Shirley A. Blair Keller

I didn't start out with Mr. Burns in mind as I painted on the layers of colored slip onto to the clay slab. But once I picked up the swallow stencil the memory of him floated up and he was with me the rest of the afternoon.

Each year, on our walk along Kaweah River Drive, we'd get to a certain string of telephone poles. He'd point up and say, "Well, any day they might appear." "Who," I asked. "The swallows," he'd say. It was September, if my memory serves correct, or maybe even October. Summer was slipping away, and some days felt like Fall. He told me the swallows that we have been enjoying since Spring will be gathering soon to make their trek south for the winter, flying maybe up to 1,000 miles in some cases. His admiration of this species of bird very obvious. He'd been teaching me about them from the moment they showed up, gathering mud from the river, and building mud nests under the bridges. Barn swallows, Tree swallows, Violet-green swallows (his favorite), and Cliff swallows, all looking the same to me, as they flew past so fast I could only see the pointed tips of wings, and notched tails. Over time I began to see the colors and differences as I learned to use the binoculars. And on the bridges, I could get close views of the Barn swallows at least, because they were still, on or by, the nests. 

He was right. A couple of days later when we arrived at the telephone poles with two or three lines hanging from them, a handful of swallows were sitting on the wires. The next day twice or more of them lined up from pole to pole. And with in days, hundreds swung on the wire in the breeze. I counted up to 500, give or take a few, by the end of the week. "Soon they will take off. No one really knows how they know the right time to go. But we will come one morning and they will be gone," said Mr. Burns.

One morning we met on the road as usual, but we both were wearing jackets. The weather had taken a much colder turn, the first thoughts of winter brought to mind. And when we walked to the place of the poles, the wires were empty. Some time between our walk the day before, and this moment 24 hours later, the swallows made their decision, and off they flew, all 500 or more, south for the winter. 

Did they wait until the last swallow showed up? How did they know it was the last one, if that is true? Was it the cold chill in the air? Mr. Burns said that some say it is the bend of the light from the sun that triggers an internal clock. Who knows. They were gone. We stood and looked at the wire. I felt the loss. I suspect he did too. We both wished the swallows safe journey and he said, "They will return in Spring. Something to look forward to," and he smiled contentedly, as he did when talking about birds. We continued toward the Catfish Farm, but we knew there'd be no swallows this day. But some other special bird would show up. That was certain. Our steps sped up to see what wonders would show themselves to us this day.