Following the Animals


It is spring.  My red bud and plum trees are in bloom and the flower petals from the almond and apricot have fallen leaving behind the promise of fruit. The frogs, which have been intermittent for the past few weeks as the weather warmed and cooled erratically, have come out in force. One has moved into the space he occupies every year in our pond and begun his nightly song to lure a mate. One evening soon she will arrive and there will be two voices together calling and responding until they both move on to their summer home. The mallards are here for their brief stopover in our pool as they migrate back home after a winter somewhere south. A few years ago they stayed floating in the pool and wandering around the deck for weeks. I pray each year that they will stay and build a nest so I can wake each morning to the sight of ducklings gliding through the water.

Now that the weather is a bit milder, I leave an upstairs door open when I go out so the dogs can lounge in the sunshine on the balcony. A friend once warned me that if the dogs can get out other animals can get in but I have never been very concerned about that. Somewhere near the bottom of my list of things to do is “put in a dog door”. Wednesday afternoon I arrived home to find that a bird had flown into my house through that door while I was out. I could not see the bird but I could hear him. He had flown up into a narrow space 15 feet off of the ground that has clearstory windows. I tried to shoo and coax him down but he refused to leave the clear glass that showed him the world he wanted to reach. I sat down to read and began to ponder how I was going to free him. It felt like something I would not be able to do alone. I sat with the pain of feeling and being alone for a few minutes and then began to consider whom I could call. I listened to the bird, also alone and in need of help, chirp and beat his wigs against the glass. I felt his frantic attempts to break free from the situation he was in. When I could not stand feeling and hearing his panic for one second longer, I went out behind our garage to find a ladder tall enough to reach him. I dragged it into the house and up the stairs. I climbed up and caught him easily in my hands. I held the small songbird for a minute, admired his beauty, and then released him through an open window.

He was a delightful young bird with orange feathers on the top of his head and at the base of his throat. His body was blue and a milky white. One moment he was here and the next he was gone. I took the ladder back outside and didn’t give it any more thought until the next morning when I was suddenly curious about what kind of bird he was. I looked up songbirds and discovered that he was a barn swallow. For the next hour I read about him. I found the saying “one swallow does not make a summer” described as a warning not to become too happy about something positive. I discovered that the males start the work of building the nest and then sing lovely songs to woo their mate into their freshly made roost. I also learned that swallows mate for life, they migrate to South America in winter, and of all the birds, they fly the farthest from land out to sea. For a sailor, the sight of a barn swallow means that land is near and they are close to home. This is one of the theories behind the tradition of a sailor having a barn swallow tattooed on his chests when he has successfully logged 5,000 nautical miles.

In most cases when I am exploring the symbolism of an animal I find the information on animal totem websites or in my books. It was unusual to find most of the information on barn swallows on sites explaining the symbolism of popular tattoos. I was stunned by how much meaning I could find in a brief visit from one small bird. The significance of Coyote, Horse, and Hawk showing up in my life had been impossible to ignore because Coyote made such a racket, Horse almost broke my leg, and Hawk was, well, a hawk. This bird felt like nothing more than a bird that had flown off course. It would have been easy to over look him. I wonder how much I over look or walk past without considering its meaning in my life. I found meaning for myself in almost everything that I read about barn swallows that morning, but the very first description I found took my breath away. The following is from one of the websites describing popular tattoos

A barn swallow was also a totem bird for sorrowing mothers who had lost a child. To kill a swallow was very unlucky, as the swallow carried the souls of children who had died. In ancient times, the swallow was associated with the ‘imperishable’ stars and the souls of the dead.

On a vision quest once, I sat down by the side of the road and had a long conversation with a very small praying mantis. It seemed perfectly natural on a vision quest to sit down next to and learn from this tiny wise creature. The barn swallow’s visit reminds me again that a long time ago listening to the animals and paying attention to when they arrived and what they have to say to us was simply a part of life. I feel deep gratitude to the animals for continuing to show up and remind me that they are here to teach and guide me. I am grateful to this young male bird for carrying the soul of my son into my home and into my thoughts. It will be 3 years in May since my son died at the age of 16. Time continues to fly by. One moment he was here and the next he was gone. I may need to mark the anniversary of his death this year by getting another tattoo. He loved tattoos. Many of us who loved him have already gotten tattoos in his memory. I am thinking of something with a barn swallow.

3 comments to Following the Animals

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>