Song without words

By

Vacation, this hectic summer, lasted one day. It was one of the best ever. A friend stopped over from a flight home. I took the day off from the office so we could drive out to battle throngs at the lake for a spot in the sun. Except for too many people, this area of limestone cliffs rising above finger-coves is a lovely place for swimming.

But that day -- I still do not understand why -- there were no people. Just my friend and I with an entire cove to ourselves.

He staked out a rock to commence unindustrious work on a suntan. I retreated to the shade of a rock overhang from where I could study the huge sycamore at the head of this narrow inlet. It seemed to be headquarters for a summit conference of every variety of bird we have in these parts. Water lapped the foot of the cliff; dragonflies rode little bits of wooden debris bobbing near shore like exhausted surfers waiting for the next big wave.

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Rousing ourselves from indolent luxury, swimming from the cove into the lake, my friend and I could see what appeared to be the smoke-black of a giant fire on cliffs toward the next cove. A fire on solid rock? How could that have occurred?

Ordinarily, there are dozens of speedboats and sailboats on the lake. That afternoon, one or two. But one speedboat did roar by and transformed that "soot" into hundreds of cliff swallows. Taking flight, they added a cloud of black to white cumulus puffs overhead.

Back in our cove, I spied a cliff swallow nest under an overhang and began to examine this curious, tubular structure with its bricklike appearance. Masses of them resemble a cobblestone street... or the Mesa Verde of birdland.

There was a baby in this particular nest. It would stick its head out, occasionally, one large gaping beak with two tiny eyes above it. A parent bird perched in a nest beside the baby. The other parent flew off in search of something tasty to keep the chirper quiet.

I became entranced by this activity. Cliff swallows are comparatively small, yet they wear a palette of stunningly subtle coloration: almost solid black wings but bodies graduating from white through brown to gray. They also have the terrifying (to a human) habit of flying at their cliff nests -- headlongm and at rapid speeds. Emitting a high-pitched call, they miraculously put on the brakes just short of catastrophe.

This kamikaze routine ended not in demolition but with the swallow suddenly clutching the bottom of the round nest opening with its talons and hanging upside down, bracing itself with the tail. In one instant, a feathered streak became an Audubon sketch!

The feeding parent would approach from over the lake, fly past the nest, make a wide arc around the cove, then return to the nest from the original direction. Sometimes it would skim the cove surface, ever so gracefully scooping a drink of water for the baby. No doubt these flawless flybys, with more arcs, swoops and barrel rolls than an Air Force Thunderbirds' show, serve some purpose other than entertainment for the tourists, but all I could think about was "more. . . more. . . again!"

It was only later, rushing my friend to his onward plane to the scherzo accompaniment of "glad you came," "had a great time," "come again," that I realized we had hardly said a word to each other all afternoon. In the haste of packing a picnic lunch, words seemed to have been left out of the basket. . . along with the pickles.

Nonetheless, when you have filled the void of daily preoccupations with warm sun and water, the joy of watching others engage in graceful industry while you idle, I suppose speech can be superfluous.

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