Saturday, June 08, 2013

Cliff Swallows and Building Narratives

These cliff swallows nest just down the road. (At least I think they're cliff swallows--are they not the only kind to build those gourd-like nests out of river mud?) I've been watching them every summer for over a decade. 

All those years, I'd drive past, slow down to glance at the swarms of birds overhead, feel the smile breaking out on my face in the way that bird-swarms make a person smile. Then I'd go on my way. I'd think, I ought to stop and take pictures. Really. Someday I will.

For some reason it sank in at last that those somedays don't just stretch forever into my distance, so today I decided to put my Flipcam to work. 

The swallows came pouring out, perhaps in response to me and my blundering around at the foot of their cliff palace. Listen to the flapping of wings and the shrill, squeaky cries. Here's life just bursting out of that rock. In contrast to that extravagance of sound and motion, look at those nests. How perfect they are, a whole community on this rock face, built one little dollop of mud at a time, flown up from the riverbank a couple of miles away. 

They remind me of Nader Khalili's ceramic homes.

What can we learn from swallows about form and structure? A lot, I think. There's such a deep sense of the organic and whole about this little colony of homes, each little cavity containing a bobbing beak or two. Nothing wasted. Everything with a purpose. Who needs heaven? Perfection is right here. 

Think about building story that way, with that kind of care and concern for setting and context, space and sky, river and rock, that intensity and life force driving the whole endeavor. I'm quoting Annie Dillard these days: "...right now your job is to hold your breath." 

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