Now She’s Gone

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Six swans have made their home here at the river. I saw them for the first time last night and then again this morning. The water today is absolutely still, like glass, like ice, and looks more an inverted sky than brackish river-water.

My son says the swans have been there for a week or more. I hope they’re here to stay, at least a while, but more likely they have been fooled by the warm temperatures—in the seventies—and are headed north. Soon they’ll reach the Southern Tier of New York where the weather is not so kind right now, and turn around, questioning their internal clocks.

And osprey, too, glided from the duck pond across the river to Windmill Point—a mile and a half across the river where the Rappahannock meets the Chesapeake. Osprey are abundant here on the Bay, but not now; not yet. Usually we are still graced with bald eagles, which don’t get along with ospreys and so they somehow split the seasons between them. Apparently our osprey friends who return late every spring from Central and South America cut their getaway short.

In Tennessee a friend of mine woke one day this week to flowers blooming in his backyard and questioned the month; in Utah and Colorado the ski season has yielded to floods from melt and rain, and in Texas my retired brother just keeps playing golf in short sleeve shirts. The seasons are out of whack and it is difficult to determine when something is dying and something is coming to life.

This isn’t about global warming. I stood a long time last night watching the swans, listening to one of them hiss, the water quietly lapping at the rocks and sand. I want to appreciate them as long as I can. I was relieved they were still there this morning. I’m sure before long they’ll be gone, and who knows which one of us will not be here next year. I’m plagued with persistent thoughts of “enjoy this while you can, you never know.” I think that comes from my maternal grandmother whom every time I would say “Talk to you soon, Grandma” to on the phone would answer, “God willing.” I laughed back then.

This is why art history; this is why journals and writing. This is why long walks along the river and Bay. I spent Thursday night at the fine Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, with my art students, and I am always grateful for the likes of Fra Angelica, Monet, Sisley, Rodin, and more. They used their talents to isolate time and pass it on to us, centuries and millennia later. We can stare at the work of the good Dominican painter and see the beauty of his subject matter, of course, but also see the 15th century, the European sentiment, the philosophical bend, the life of then.

This morning I watched the swans and recognized the extremes in my world. There is the art of it, for example, made permanent by artists such as my friend Mikel Wintermantel, whose landscape paintings hang in my house, or my son’s own abstract water photos which fill my soul with such calmness. They bring instant peace of mind as well as transport me to pastoral locales I love to wander; but there is also the temporal reality of it, as moments pass, as loved ones pass, as we realize the greatest treasures can’t be recreated or often even remembered—only experienced, now. Right now.

The swan spends her life hissing. It is a gentle sound, and I don’t know better but it is almost as if she is trying to harmonize with the water or the soft breezes through the reeds along the shoreline. But right before she dies she lets out a long, serene call, just before the end, as if to offer us one last beautiful moment before she leaves us for good.

It is, literally, her swan song.

Sometimes when my mind is clear and I’m not distracted by the give and take of going and coming back, I can sense every aspect of nature in the constant call of her swan song. It is then that I am inspired to do the same, to stop hissing and make every call as beautiful as I can, even if I do wake up ready to try it again the next day. It is how I wish I could be all the time, to bring as much beauty as I can, to see as much beauty as I can, as often as I can. And then tomorrow—God willing—do it again.

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Mikel Wintermantel
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