Weeds: He misses them already

They’re gone.

The swallows have left the farm. It’s not quite as predictable as San Juan Capistrano, but it’s close. They were lining up on an overhead wire. taking turns dive bombing for bugs the night before. The next morning, they weren’t here. They left in the dark, beginning a journey to Central or even South America. They don’t tell me where they’re going.

It is one of those acts of nature that is remarkable if you think about it. Small birds, less than ounce, flying a couple thousand miles twice a year. For those hatched in our sheds this summer, it’s all new. Yet they know the way. GPS? God’s Perfect System?

Day to day, we don’t think about this amazing planet we live on and the universe that surrounds it. We wouldn’t get much done if we sat around dwelling on it. Maybe we should. We seem to have ample time to argue and disagree and put down others lately in this country. Maybe a little more time focused on nature might help. Regardless, a low level and constant sense of awe at Creation is warranted.

Our barn swallows are companions as I work outside long summer evenings. I’m on the ground and they’re not, but otherwise we share the same farmyard. They’re entertaining to watch, darting here and there, light reflecting off their shimmer-blue backs. Plus, they eat mosquitoes! What more can you ask?

A couple days before they left, I was on top of a bin doing some work. One of the swallows was out on a mission and rose slightly to go up over the bin. He came face to face with me. His look said, “What the?” as he veered suddenly.

Barn swallows are among most common birds around the globe. The ancestors of our seasonal guests nested along riverbanks and caves. They adapted rapidly and readily to human structures. They were likely attaching their mud and grass nests to Indian shelters before Europeans came with their farm buildings. Here, that’s the old granary and pig house. Sheds with metal roofs don’t seem to interest them.

Not every farmer is fond of them. They do leave a mess below their nests. As the famous children’s book teaches us, “Everything Poops.” Swallows aren’t an exception. There is a bit of cleanup when they migrate away.

We learned in history class that human immigration occurs due to pulls and pushes. Swallows are no different. The pull to these summer homes is the abundance of food. This is their breeding home. The abundance of flying insects to pluck out of the air gives them nutrition to raise up several generations in a summer. The push is to escape predators that prowl and fly nearer the equator. Farm cats aren’t much of a threat. The swallows seem to enjoy harassing them.

I came in the house to tell Pam the morning they were gone, and she noticed a melancholy in my voice. “I don’t have that many friends; I don’t like it when some of them leave.” I told her we need to put in the will that whoever is here after us has to leave the granary door open in spring.

The swallows’ leave-taking is a marker of the change of seasons which is here. Summer turns to fall, and there are signs everywhere of a downward slide in temperature and day light. Most of the signs are gradual: slow turning of the leaves, slight change to the air, angle of the sun. But the swallow disappearance is a sudden and striking message: winter is coming!

There is much to do before we farmers turn our fields over to winter. But it will happen fast. I love the harvest with its challenges and demanding pace. I need to remind myself in the midst of it to live in that moment and remember how much I enjoy this. Even if a fuel line is leaking or the combine is making a noise.

On the other end of the fall is winter. Besides the swallows, I have more and more human friends who migrate south for the winter. I’m finding myself a bit jealous as I watch their taillights disappear over the southern horizon.

Pam and I have taken a few short trips to warm places in the cold months. Having spent 64 winters in the northland, it seems unnatural. If I call back here and talk to someone who is telling me about miserable weather, I feel like I should be back there pulling people’s cars out of snowbanks and jumping their batteries.

An odd thing the day after the swallows left: I found one dead in the grass just off the yard. I don’t remember finding a dead swallow before. I assume their passing is more likely where they spend the greater part of their year near the equator. Was this one old and not up to the journey? I think of my swallows as returning every spring. Of course, in my life there have been lots of generations. The ones I watched as a boy are long deceased.

I started thinking of another group of my friends who have gone. Only they won’t be coming back in the spring. These are folks who have gone to a “better place.” That is a journey we will all make. Just as the newly hatched swallow can’t know what is at the end of their migration, we don’t know exactly what we will find. Will that “better place” be sunny and warm with longer days? Will we be able to linger with people we love like at the end of a summer day?

There is the great old hymn that suggests we will be like the swallows as we take that final journey. “I’ll Fly Away” is the most recorded gospel song of all. It was written about 100 years ago by Albert Brumley, coming into his head as he picked cotton on his father’s farm.

“Some glad morning when this life is over,

I’ll fly away.

To a home on God’s celestial shore,

I’ll fly away.

I’ll fly away, oh, glory

I’ll fly away

When I die, Hallelujah, by and by

I’ll fly away.”


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