Sunday, November 02, 2008



I have a lot of respect for swans. They are very strong, and fiercely protective of their families. And when I was a little kid living in Austria, I was traumatized when a swan attacked me and stole my ham sandwich. It was a horrible. Horrible, I tell you!

A few years back, I worked at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which is situated on a beautiful park neighboring the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art. The founders of ASF had the idea to make their theater as similar as possible to the Royal Shakespeare Theater at Stratford-Upon-Avon, and so they decided that they, too, should have picturesque black swans swimming in front of the theater. As the story goes (and everyone I worked with felt compelled to tell me this tale), ASF contacted the Royal Shakespeare Company to ask if they could buy some black swans. "No deal!" said the RSC: "All swans in the UK are the property of Her Majesty, the Queen." (Black swans, I should note are native to Australia, and not the UK or Alabama.) The folks in Alabama tried to find a source of black swans, and completely struck out. So, the story goes that they called the RSC back and implored them to tell where the Queen got her swans. Apparently all the black swans that were swimming in the Avon River at that time were hatched at an aviary somewhere in -- wait for it -- Alabama.

I have never been able to confirm the veracity of this story, even though I must have been told it twenty times. Yes, the swans in the UK do belong to the Queen, and in fact she even gives them as diplomatic gifts from time to time. She gave six pairs of swans to the City of Ottowa in 1967, and my internet research tells me that the descendants of these black swans were under quarantine in the winter of 2006-2007, because of fears of avian flu. The swans were kept in a facility nicknamed -- alarmingly -- Swantanamo Bay. (You just can't make this stuff up!)

Anyway, whether the story about the source of the black swans was true or not, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival had a flotilla of black swans that graced the man-made lakes out front, and there was another group of white swans that were supposed to swim in front of the art museum.

Of course, the important phrase in that previous sentence is "supposed to swim." Swans, as even the most casual observer has noticed, have wings and legs and are generally ambulatory. They swans went wherever they pleased.

But the millionaire neighbors who underwrote the park and the theater and the museum weren't pleased with this arrangement. In their ideal universe, the white swans should not mix with the black swans. (These were the same people who kept a flock of sheep on their estate, because they "looked cute." Also, they were rabid anti-Hillary Clinton activists, when she first ran for office in New York State, but that's another story.) Anyway, they instructed the groundskeepers to row out into the lake, sneak up on the swans, and forcibly move them to where they were supposed to be.

You can imagine how well this worked, and how much the groundskeepers and the swans grew to hate one another.

It being the Deep South, there were subjects that were just off-limits, because there was no polite way of addressing them. For example, the huge billboards outside the city that said, "Welcome to Montgomery, the Birthplace of Civil Rights" were not commented on. I found these cruelly ironic, and thought that a better slogan might be, "Welcome to Montgomery, where things got so bad, they reached a Breaking Point."

As I said, we didn't discuss these things.

So, I never once said it out loud while in Alabama, but I'll say it now:

Holy crap! Does nobody see the bitter irony of the fact that people are being paid to segregate the freaking swans? What's wrong with you people??????

Okay, so I suppose you're wondering what that was all about.....

Well, I'm on a email list of bird sightings in my area, and when I've got time I try to go check out the local oddities. Since I hadn't left the house in days, I decided that since I was feeling marginally better, I should go outside for a walk, and while I was out, I should try to see the Mute Swan that had landed at our local lake. Mute Swans are not native to North America (they were introduced like the aforementioned black swans to "grace" wealthy estates, and because of their aggressive behavior have disrupted breeding of other species of waterfowl). Mute Swans live primarily in northern Canada, as well as in Michigan and radiating out from Long Island New York. Seeing a wild Mute Swan in California is pretty bizarre.

Bizarre? Sign me up!

I staggered down to the lake (in fact, I almost fell down the steep stair off of our street, but nevermind that), and kept my eyes open for swans, or for birdwatchers. It was a beautiful sunny day, after the first big rainstorm of the fall, and I was overdressed and sweaty. I wandered around for a long time, and failed to see any swans at all.

And just as I was leaving a woman came up to me and asked about the swan. She used the same birdwatching trick that I employ: asking the person with the big camera. She and I were commiserating about our lack of swan sightings, when a couple told us that they had just seen it, and that it wasn't far away. We took off after the swan, even though I was really ready to go home and lie down, and spotted it way across the lake. My companion was content with a glimpse though her binoculars, but I was determined to get a photograph. (If you ever want to get Lisa off her sick-bed, tell her that there's an exotic animal right outside the window. Really.)

I tromped around the lake, getting sweatier and woozier, and finally was closing in on that darn swan, when he proved why he's a majestic creature of the water and I'm a pedestrian schlubb. He swam right across the lake, to where I just spent the last hour.

I trudged back and caught up with the swan. Since I'm now a vegetarian, I had no ham sandwich to tempt his ire, and I managed to get very close to the elusive Mute Swan, and enjoy his beauty unmollested.

Excellent! I could go home, dunk myself in the sink and lay down. But, hey what's that? Every other single weird rare bird that had been recently spotted on the lake, all in one place?

Yeah, I'll tell you about that another time.


Anonymous said...

I love your stories! Keep them coming.
Glad you're feeling better. I was also under the weather over the weekend but enjoyed the chance to do nothing. Take care,

Knit Wit said...

I saw the point of your story coming a mile away--keeping the black and white swans separate indeed. I am very glad you got your picture. Now go to bed and rest, woman!

Wish I were there to bring round some vegetable soup or something.

Lyn said...

There you are, exhibiting determination in your relentless appreciation of beauty. I'm so glad I know you.

Syndee said...

The irony of that story screams picture book for kids. Does the problem over segregating black and white swans still exist today?

Thanks for giving me something different to think about on this worrisome election day.

kaslkaos said...

That is the most bizarre story about swans I can imagine ever hearing about! Thanks for sharing your weird and wonderful albeit vaguely disturbing tale.


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