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28 July 2021

Summer is the season of longing

I think of the summer swifts, those tiny intercontinental airships dreaming of warmer places; longing, like us, to take flight.

By Melissa Harrison

A fast, repeated fluster, resonant and full of intention, like the sound a dog’s ears make when it shakes itself dry – but my friend’s Labrador was in the room with her, and quite still. She followed the sound upstairs and there, on a sunny windowsill, was an adult swift, startling in its blackness and strange, unearthly otherness, struggling against the invisible force field of the glass. Gently, she picked it up and folded its long wings into its body and opened the window, and it launched itself easily from her hands into the endless west London sky.

“It must have come in at my bedroom window – it was open a crack but the curtains were closed – and then found its way up to the window at the top of the stairs,” she told me the following day. Swifts will investigate crevices in buildings, looking for nesting places which are, like the birds themselves, diminishing year on year: swift numbers in Britain have decreased by more than half since 1995. She has ordered a swift box and will be fitting it to her eaves; who knows, perhaps her brief summer visitor will return next year and raise chicks who will call her townhouse home.

This year – and last year too – our migrant birds have carried with them an extra resonance. The earliest arrivals, like the chiffchaff, were for many people a longed-for signal that the locked-down winter was finally coming to a close; but a cold, wet spring meant the next wave of birds was delayed, with numbers of swallows and, particularly, house martins down compared with the same period last year, and their breeding success likely to be harmed as a result.

Ornithology Twitter has been aflutter with concerns about the low numbers, but this year I also heard many casual observers say they were longing for the summer birds’ return. They are markers in the once comforting round of seasonal events whose course we now fear is being altered by climate change – proof that “the globe’s still working”, as Ted Hughes wrote – but also proxies for our own, frustrated longing for travel, for movement, for change.

I bought my first house only a couple of months before coronavirus arrived on our shores, and through my first winter and spring I didn’t notice that the cottage next door was a holiday rental: like all of the second homes in the village it stood empty, its windows dark in the evenings and with no woodsmoke curling from its chimney on cold nights. Last summer it had one or two visitors, only for it to become dormant again in autumn and winter; but in recent weeks I’ve seen it for the first time abuzz with life. Couples unfold themselves stiffly from their cars after long drives into unfamiliar countryside, exclaiming how pretty the village is and how refreshing it is to be somewhere new at last; kids colonise the little garden, bringing excitement and life to what has sometimes felt like a very subdued community and sending the resident blackbird to seek peace and quiet on my side of the hedge.

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[see also: In my newly wildlife-friendly garden, damselflies mate to a soundtrack of London traffic]

If I’m working in my front garden or happen to catch them on their way back and forth from their car, the summer visitors and I greet one another with a subtle emotional valence derived from what has come before. “How has it been here?” they’ll ask me; “have you had many cases?” I’ll tell them no, we’ve been very lucky, but that winter in particular was hard. And they’ll nod: it was hard for all of us, of course, but looking around they know that “getting away from it all” to a small, rural village makes for a wonderful holiday, but might also mean getting away from support networks, from convenience, and from many of the things they relied on through lockdown.

And so we smile at one another, registering a fleeting sense of connection we might not have made space for prior to the pandemic, before moving on to discuss the best local beaches, or the nearby farm shop. It’s a reminder that I’m lucky to live in the kind of place people want to come and visit; and sharing it – especially now, when we’ve all been going through something so difficult – feels like a privilege.

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The roses haven’t put on a great display in the village this summer: certainly not my new, year-old Scepter’d Isle, nor the otherwise beautiful, mature Lady Emma Hamilton a few doors down. They’ve been beaten down by rain, their petals browned or knocked off no sooner than they’d opened – but perhaps it’s not too late for some summer sun to see them right. Out in the fields, the staunch poppies have done better, each bloom only ever meant to be transient, each scatter of them building on their slow recovery from decades of herbicide overuse. Hogweed and pignut have replaced cow parsley along the narrow lanes, but soon – too soon it feels this time – the season will be over for our native wildflowers.

August may be peak holiday period for us, but it’s a time when growth slows, leaves toughen, grass fades and plants set seed, or begin the journey towards senescence. Many birds go into moult and disappear from our sight and hearing; in August my backdoor blackbird will fall silent, and I won’t hear his song again until next spring.

Perhaps this year our swifts will linger. The chicks remain nest-bound until heavy enough to survive their huge migration to equatorial and southern Africa, a journey they undertake after only two or three days’ flying practice. If the weather is good and flying insects are abundant, the young reach their target weight sooner; poor weather and less food can mean it takes them longer to fatten up. I think of them often, tucked into the last remaining crevices in our ever-more inhospitable buildings: tiny intercontinental airships dreaming of warmer places; longing, like us, to take flight.

“The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary” (Faber & Faber) is out in paperback

[see also: Are we really experiencing a summer of love?]

This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special