I have never been to the Mission San Juan Capistrano, but my mother told me about the swallows. What I remember from her stories is what many of us remember from the legend of The Swallows of Capistrano: There is an old Catholic mission somewhere in far off California where swallows return each year to mark the coming of spring. They leave in the autumn and the evens of the mission buildings are silent and bare all winter. We lived in Ohio where the winters can be silent and bare and my mother would mold that story of the swallow’s returning into a lesson of faith. Not necessarily faith in God (though she was not above slipping in such sectarian messages), but more faith in the rhythm and balance of life – faith in the dependability of the natural world. She assured my brothers and me that faith in the coming of spring was powerful enough to make it happen and even in the grip of a cold, icy Ohio winter belief in The Swallows of Capistrano was sometimes the best tool for getting through until summer.
Of course in those days, summer meant mostly summer vacation. I was too young then to understand the turn of seasons, the scientific power of photosynthesis, the metaphorical power of death and rebirth. And latter, in my high school years, before the prairie put its mark on me and taught me the crucial value of the coming of spring, we joked with my mother. Hinckley, Ohio was not far from our hometown and, like Capistrano; Hinckley has a spring festival marked by the returning of birds. Every spring the turkey vultures return to Hinckley. Back in the sixties, with the Beach Boys proclaiming the wonders of the warm California sun from every car radio it seemed reasonable that we Ohioans, we citizens of the rust belt, would be blessed with vultures instead of swallows. Now, of course, I know that species do not come in different denominations, that each one, cockroach to leopard, weighs the same on the scales of evolution. But even now I am gripped by the romance of those tiny swallows that return to the romantic California mission at the behest of true believers in spring.
So on the evening of the twentieth of May, after a winter that was difficult in many ways, my ears perked up to hear Erney describe the swallows he had seen that day. He was sitting in front of his quarters – an apartment built in the shed portion of the metal barn. Converting that barn was one of the jobs that had made the winter difficult. But on May twentieth it was finished, complete with mews for the falcons, upstairs apartment for Gervase, and Erney below beside the dog kennels. The two mile long view of the Cheyenne River is the best on the ranch and Erney was sitting in the afternoon sun, enjoying that view when he first saw the swallows. There were three or four and they checked out the lily pond we had just built in front of the barn by diverting a natural seep. He said they flew into the rafters above his front door and raised a din of birdy exuberance then buzzed off toward the south.
I was sorry to have missed them and that night I brought out the dog-eared bird books and tried to identify the birds from Erney’s description. Not barn swallows, he said. But like them with a buff forehead patch. This is our first spring on the Cheyenne River and how it unfolds will be important for the summer to come. As I searched the bird book I couldn’t help remembering my mother’s stories of The Swallows of Capistrano and the faith in a new summer that brought them from wintering grounds at the tip of South America. In my bird book I found no swallows with buff foreheads and I thought Erney was crazy until I came across a photo of a swallow building a gourd-like nest of mud. The structure was fascinating, conical and tapered to an opening just big enough for the swallow and her mate. I looked close and there it was, a buff forehead. The caption was simple: Cliff swallow at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
I was up early the next morning, sitting in front of Erney’s apartment beside the dog kennels. We watched the southern sky above the Cheyenne River and Big Corral Draw. There was hint of green on the hills that had been brown for so long but there were no swallows. It was not until nearly eight o’clock that the first tiny anchor-shape sliced the sky. It could have been a falcon thousands of feet above or a swallow at hundreds of feet. But falcons seldom travel in pairs! And almost never in trios! The little squad was already diving when we saw the second wave. Three more. Four. Another group of six and suddenly the rafters above us were full of cliff swallows fresh in from Argentina. They chattered wildly, not ten feet overhead. And immediately, they darted to the new lily pond and began scooping mud up in their beaks.
By nightfall, fifty of the conical nest I had seen in the book the night before clung half finished to the rafters above the dogs. In two days the nests were complete, with a pair of swallows peeking out of each doorway. Now the females incubate their eggs and the males streak ceaselessly skyward for insects. It won’t be long before there are hundreds of swallows zipping sleekly around this ranch as if it were a Catholic Mission in sunny California. Even the Cheyenne River breaks have taken on an unfamiliar huge. They seem as green and fertile as Napa Valley.