Molly Fisk: The Swan

4331086407_75ce87abe8_zPhoto by Matthew Paulson via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Several years ago a friend told me that in California’s Central Valley, which is about an hour from here, the rice farmers flood their fields after the harvest to provide habitat for the migrating birds that come down the Pacific Flyway. She said there were all sorts of ducks, Canada geese, Brandt’s geese . . . but most of all there were swans.

How can you not love swans? From The Ugly Duckling to Swan Lake, they’re a symbol of grace and perfection. They float regally in twos and threes across the moats of every castle in Europe, symbolizing luxury, but they also appear on the lakes of the poorest hamlets in upstate New York, tucking their heads under a wing and drifting as they sleep, like enormous snowy pillows. Even I love them, despite one biting my thumbnail half-off at The Palace of Fine Arts duck pond in San Francisco when I was five.

When I heard swans wintered nearby, I tried to go see them. My first attempt was foiled by a traffic jam, and we couldn’t get there until after dark. It didn’t seem worth stopping to me, since we couldn’t see anything, but luckily my friend needed a cigarette. The minute we opened the car doors we were hit by a wave of sound: hundreds of voices gurgling, filling the night. It was amazing. It sounded like water — not the crash of waterfalls but the confluence of many little creeks. We stayed for half an hour, and the next morning I went back to see them in daylight.

There’s something thrilling to me about abundance. I feel this way looking at pumpkins lying in the fields in October, and mile after mile of blossoming almond groves in early April. One is great, ten is better, but so many you can’t count them is really exciting! There were probably 10,000 swans in those rice fields, dots of white as far as the eye could see. I counted 300 in the first field I came to. They sit and sleep and lumber awkwardly in the shallow water, always making their gurgling calls. They lift in pairs and dozens to circle overhead for a while, disappearing at some angles and then gilded white and gold in the sun at others. They fly in vees to try other locations. When they land, there’s a lot of precarious flapping before the splash and then they fold into that elegant long-necked silhouette as if they had never had an ungraceful moment.

The swans are here from Thanksgiving to the middle of January. Then they migrate somewhere else. When I’m feeling insane about the relentless materialism of an American Christmas, I go visit the swans. I want you to go, too. Take your binoculars, camera, mittens, and a thermos of hot cider. Bring your kids and your father-in-law. Forget about gravy and piles of presents under the tree.

Instead, stand in the stark landscape of winter and gaze at a different Christmas miracle: swans by the murmuring acre.

To see the swans, drive east of Marysville on Rte. 20 about 5 miles to Woodruff Lane and turn north. In 30 seconds you’ll be among the rice fields.

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  • Swan March 2, 2016 at 7:15 am

    I have just found the response to mine and thank you for the correction. Hmmm “cygnet” not “signet”. Silly me, I must certainly have been carried away, cygnets occur often in the ballet world so it was not the first time I had written or read it.
    Now where are those swans ?

  • hillsmom December 28, 2015 at 11:10 am

    @ Swan: I believe you miss-typed the word for a young swan. It’s “cygnet”. A “signet” is a type of seal…not the kind that swims in the water. 😎 Still loved your posting, though.
    Cheers and HNY, too.

  • Swan December 27, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Hello – Well as you can see from my nom-de-plume and addresses of website and Email, I LOVE SWANS. I have always been lucky enough to have swans living in close proximity to where I live both when in Dublin and now in France. After a “swan absence” of a couple of winters they appeared again last autumn. It made me so happy and surprisingly close to ecstatic. There they were, the whole family, which included four signets. The signets were almost full grown and only showing a little bit of coffee brown plumage on their heads. They had such an innocent look in their expressive faces and yes they have facial expressions. Father Swan was arrogant and agressive, Mamma Swan was serene yet smart when it came to picking up bread crusts we were throwing to them. Young Swans were learning fast and picked up quite a lot and began to ask for more.
    There they were in the river which passes at the bottom of our garden in the French countryside. As an ex-dancer (classical ballet) this episode meant a lot to me.
    Happy New Year to you and to all your blog readers,

  • Carol Arrington December 26, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    There is a beautiful piece of music called ‘The Swan’ by Saint Saens

  • hillsmom December 26, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    Oh Molly, what a magical scene you have described…how I would love to see it. Actually, I have seen the thousands of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese (yes thousands)when they stop off at Middle Creek WMA, in PA. This is the Spring Migration which includes other geese and ducks stopping off to rest and feed following the thawing of lakes and ponds, as they wing north.

    I’m so glad I went last Spring. I couldn’t find a friend to drive up with, but went up solo. (You can spend your life waiting around for others.) Another treat of the trip was seeing the Bluebirds staking their claims along a Bluebird Trail, and listening to their plaintive trills. You can never see enough Bluebirds.

    Hmmm…I think I’ll do a bit of research to see if they, the swans, are hanging around Cape May or in DE, not too far away. Thanks for the good idea. Last winter there were Snowy Owls around the Jersey Shore which is something I’ve never seen. Perhaps I’ll go see them next year. Cheers