Posted by Tania Kindersley.
The swallows are here. I thought I saw them last night, spitfiring past my study window, but it was in the gloaming and they were moving so fast I could not be sure. Then, this morning, I took the dogs down to see the cows who have moved into the south-western meadow. They are particularly beautiful, in many shades of dun and cream, more like elegant French Charolais than British creatures, and they and the dogs like to do mute stare-offs, which makes me laugh. The sun was struggling to come out from a low sky, and I was looking up at the departing clouds when, suddenly, THERE THEY WERE. My swallows, at last, back from Africa.
They were so late this year that I feared they would not come. I had a horrible feeling that something terrible might have happened to them on the long journey home; Somali pirates or volcanic ash or any number of possible catastrophes. I have been getting reports of the swallows arriving in Angus and various places in the south, and each evening and morning I would scan the sky anxiously, more and more convinced that my pair had, for the first time in eight years, not found their way back.
I have always wondered why it is that they come to me. I suddenly realise that it is a wonderful product of the law of unintended consequences. There are plenty of other sheds on the compound, but everyone else is good and organised and shuts their doors at night. I, on the other hand, am flaky and rackety, and always forget to close the door. That must have been how they found their way in in the first place. Ever since that first magical year, when I looked up to see the original perfectly constructed mud nest, I have left the door open for them each spring. Inside the shed, there is a sloping wooden roof, with thick, sturdy rafters, and the birds build their beautiful home against the beams, tucked right up in the eaves. The nests are so brilliantly made that they never lose their shape or structure, but, interestingly, the swallows do not go back to the old nests, but make a new one every time. I cannot express the delight and fascination the whole thing gives me.
Which brings me onto the eighty-seventh reason I love the internet. I wanted to give you a picture, so off I went to the Google. There, on the first page, was this astonishing photograph:
That was the first delight, because it is such a glorious image. It was taken by a gentleman called Don Bartletti for the Los Angeles Times, and I have no idea how he captured such a shot, but it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. However, these are not normal swallows; these are cliff swallows. I had never even heard of a cliff swallow. (I admit, I am not well-versed in the world of birds.) Apparently, they live in North America, and winter in Venezuela and Argentina, in a tremendously chic way. (For some reason, spending the winter in Venezuela makes me think of cabin trunks and cloche hats and the golden age of steam. Absolutely no idea why.) There is a famous flock that returns every year to the Mission San Juan Capistrano, so regularly that you can set your watch by it. So, because my birds came back, and because I wanted to tell you about that, and because I needed a nice picture to go with, I ended up discovering something that until now had been quite unknown to me. Hurrah for the marvellous cliff swallows and the genius that is the world wide web for allowing me to find them.
My Day of Discovery was not over yet. I thought: since I have found such a lovely swallow picture, perhaps I should find a nice cow picture to go with it. I googled about again, and yet more hitherto unperceived information fell like bounty into my lap. Did you know that there are over eight hundred different breeds of cattle? Had you ever heard of the magnificent Hungarian Grey? I certainly had not. Look at the gloriousness:
(Photograph by Csomor Laszlo.)
According to Wikipedia, they are 'robust, unpretentious, easy-calving and long-lived'. I love the idea of unpretentious cows. They are in high contrast, I suppose, to all those poncy cows with their flim-flammery and their fancy ways.
The clever Norwegians also have a great cow: the Norwegian Red. It is, apparently, noted for its hardiness. I have no information about its levels of pretentiousness:
(Photograph, slightly oddly, from Oklahoma State University.)
I am also much taken by the Nelore, another breed of which I had never heard. They originated in India, over two thousand years ago, by the Sea of Bengal, and somehow two of them got on a ship in 1868 and were dropped off in Brazil, where they are now easily the most dominant cow in the country. I still don't quite understand how a cow which thrived in the Punjab and by the Ganges ended up being the top bovine in Brazil, and I expect I shall ponder that for most of the rest of the day. Here they are, the beauties:
I love ideas the most, but I also love facts. I have a craving to know stuff. Occasionally, in my more fanciful moments, I think if only I can know enough it will keep me safe. This is why, for all the grumbling and grouching about how the interwebs are frying our poor fragile brains, I give thanks every day for the amazing prairies of the Net.
Bird update: just as I was finishing this post, my sister came to see me and we sat outside in the sun and talked of cabbages and kings (or similar). The swallows were dashing about overhead. And THEN the most wonderful thing happened. The crazy gang of swifts, which live down at my sister's house, and never come up here, flew over in a great roaring rush, and performed an antic dancing display. It was as if they were an official welcoming committee for their feathery cousins. The swallows joined in, and they all soared about at top speed, swooping so low that I could feel the beat of their wings fanning the air above me, and all the time singing their heads off. I never saw anything quite like it.
One more thing:
Thank you so much for the particularly lovely and thoughtful and kind comments of the last two days. You know sometimes I get behind and do not reply to them all, but I read them and love them and appreciate every one. There are some new readers this week, which always gives me a great sense of delight; welcome, welcome.
Have a very happy Friday.
Oh, and because it is Friday and the sun is shining, and it feels like the end of a very long and strange week, I can't leave you without this:
Don't you love how she does slightly wistful when she is ready for her close-up? Actually, she has just spotted a bumble bee and is wondering where it is going to land.
And this one, you may think, is practically smiling for the camera, but in fact she is looking at me like that because I have got her stick.