Sunday, June 30, 2013
Ravished By Rhode Island's Swans
“Good, that’s one less pest we need to deal with,” said the local Nature Conservancy educator as he handed off my bag of organic vegetables at the weekly CSA pick-up. I had called his office earlier to report the dead bird. I knew he and his colleagues were interested in anything out of the ordinary and had called before with reports of strange birds or dead marine mammals I’d come across on one of Block Island’s remote beaches. “On the mainland the DEM addles the eggs so they won’t hatch,” he went on to inform me. I stuffed my anger and retreated down the barn ramp with my bag of vegetables, ashamed.
It was a young swan, silver-gray instead of white, but fully grown. It lay belly-up on the strip of emerald grass between the paved road and a stone wall. Its long, curved neck was stretched all the way out, exposed to the cobalt sky in what, if it had been alive, I would have called rapture. There were no marks on its body I could see, so I concluded it hadn’t been hit by a car. I had never seen a swan in the road anyway, and it was too perfectly composed to have been flung to the side of the road. When I touched its belly it was still warm. I felt firm muscle under feathers. Looking up, I noted a power line above and deduced maybe it had flown into it, which would account for the perfection of its death, shocked out of the sky to land on the grass, wings slightly open and loose at its sides like a yogi in savasana.. Later, The Nature Conservancy confirmed that it had hit a power line. Apparently swans have poor frontal vision and often collide mid-flight.
When I think of swans I see them as a poet, not as a scientist. I see the “The Wild Swans at Coole,” who drift in Yeats’ poem “on the still water,/mysterious, beautiful,” not the pests that have been destroying pond ecosystems in North America through overgrazing of subaquatic vegetation, not a bird so aggressive it drives out indigenous, threatened birds like least terns and skimmers. I did know not to get too close to a swan. As a child we used to feed a flock of waterfowl at the town docks not far from our house. My parents always warned us to step back whenever a swan lumbered out of the harbor for a breadcrumb. They hissed when they approached, and I had no doubt they could, as my parents warned, break my legs, but this threat of danger only increased my awe and fascination. The swan was not silly like a duck, it was seductive and sinister. It got what it wanted. My brother and I scattered our whole bag of stale bread and ran from them. Not a crumb for the ducks. I learned of Zeus transforming himself into a swan to ravish Leda. Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” makes the power of the swan visceral. One of the reasons it is so disturbing for me is because there is a hint of sexual pleasure in what we are told is a rape. In one essay on the poem I read that what we are reading about in Yeats’ version of the story is not rape, but ravishment—a forced surrender to the divine that results in a deeper ecstasy than can be experienced if one surrenders willingly. Yeats writes:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
I have to admit I don’t know how I feel about this. A part of me feels it is true, a part of me does not want to feel that way. I have recently become aware that my best writing comes from this uncertainty. Most of the time I don’t know what I know, or even what I think until I begin writing, so this is ripe territory for me that I plan to explore when I finish this essay. In the meantime, I can say that the swan is a powerful totem in many cultures. In general, it is associated with fluidity, intuition, dreaming, emotions and creativity. When it appears in our lives we may become more in touch with our intuition, or have a visionary dream. As many know, swans mate for life, so they are associated with love and devotion. In the Celtic tradition they are linked to the sun gods Belanus and Lugh, and to Brigid, goddess of fire, healing and poetry. The Celts also saw the swan as a vehicle from the Otherworld to this one and tell the tale of Aoifa, the Irish princess whose four brothers were condemned to live as swans by a jealous stepmother. Aoifa remains mute for seven years and weaves four flax shirts that break the enchantment.
In the “Ugly Duckling,” by the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, we find an awkward, speckled cygnet raised by ducks who thinks he is ugly in comparison. Once he sees his inner beauty, he is transformed into a glorious white adult. He earns his beauty by transforming from the inside out. In German folklore, we are told of Swan Maidens who become human women when they take off their feather robes to swim at night in a lake. When a hunter steals the feather robe of the youngest of seven swan sisters, she, freezing after her nocturnal swim, has to become his wife when he refuses to give it back. If she wants to survive she must accept his cloak, which she does, following him home to become his wife and bear his children. When she discovers her feathers hidden behind the wainscoting, she takes to the air, abandoning her family, telling her daughter that if her husband wants her back he can follow her to the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The husband sets out to find her, and after a series of trials he wins, through trickery, a cap that makes him invisible and shoes that will carry him immediately to his destination. At first he can’t tell which of the seven maidens is his wife, but he asks the king if he can hold the hand of each woman. He knows his wife from the calluses on the forefinger of her right hand, roughened by years of sewing his clothes. The king, as a man of his word, hands over his daughter, and the hunter takes his wife back to the forest. However, this time he lets her keep her feather robe so that she can visit her family whenever she wants.
Stories like this used to infuriate me. When I learned to look at folk tales through an archetypal lens, my views changed. Instead of oppression, I saw transformation. When each character becomes an aspect of one’s consciousness, myths act as a guide for our souls. Our reactions to them—where we find ourselves in the story—can give us a glimpse into the unconscious. We are able to see what we are hiding from ourselves, and if we allow ourselves to be penetrated by the story, we open up the possibility of birthing a new aspect of ourselves which will add to the depth of our vision and our capacity to relate. We all have a swan maiden and a hunter inside us, and sometimes we need a magic cap and shoes, and a bit of trickery to get past the conscious mind so we can get to the king inside us who will give us permission to marry. The goal is always union. That’s why so many stories end with marriage. The male aspect of ourselves unites with the female and a child is born. In our own brains, we have two hemispheres, the left representing masculine qualities, while the right is a container for the feminine. They are joined by the corpus collossum. When the hemispheres are in balance we make choices that are based on intellect and intuition. We are in desperate need of this holistic way of perceiving in our culture, which over-emphasizes the left brain, keeping us isolated from the rest of creation.
The mute swans, scourge of freshwater and brackish bodies of water in the northeast U.S. is not a native species. It was imported from Europe in the late 19th century as a decorative embellishment. Someone had the idea it would be inspiring to watch them glide on ponds, and unless you know the damage they do, it can still be inspiring. In fact, I know the damage, and am moved beyond my rational thoughts into ecstasy when I see one. There is no denying the physical beauty of this white bird. Like all wild creatures, they tried to escape, and were successful. The first noted escapee in Rhode Island was actually sighted, in 1923, here on Block Island. It pains me that swans are wiping out other birds, and I understand the DEM’s approach. What I don’t like is the pleasure I heard in the Nature Conservancy educator’s voice when he told me about the addling program. (By the way, addling consists of coating the eggs with oil, usually, corn, smothering the embryos so they die in the egg. The eggs are left on the nest so the swan will not hatch new ones.) I don’t think the pleasure I heard in his voice was in killing, it was pleasure that I was hurt. He was mocking my emotion, which has no place in his world where a cool, rational intellect is necessary in order to choose who will live or die. I respect him for it, but I wish the scientist in him could have encountered the poet in me with a reciprocal respect, a willingness to cooperate, instead of ridicule, an acknowledgement that the imagination has as an essential role in restoring balance to our ecosystem as the mechanics of science.
In The Nature Conservancy view “nature” is entirely ruled by chemical and biological forces. Their answer is to add a few drops of swan poison and the ponds will right themselves. On the other side there are people like me who mourn the swan as well as the loss of skimmers and least terns. We are often called sentimental and would not survive the survival of the fittest if it was a purely physical contest. In the case of imagining possibilities, we are not only more flexible, we are muscular as well, and have an essential role to play in re-establishing balance so that life on our planet can go on.
When I weep for the destruction of beauty I weep for the death of the imagination. According to current science, the corpus collossum, the part of the brain that connects right and left hemispheres, is not fully functioning in humans. Since the Enlightenment, we have valued the intellect over intuition to such an extent that it’s as if the bridge of the corpus collossum has become so tattered, like one of those rope bridges you see strung across ravines in wild places, it’s about to collapse, leaving us on one side without a means to cross to the other.
Poetry still exists in the world. Even in Western culture, people still tell the old stories, adapting them to current mediums. Darren Arronofsky’s film “Black Swan,” based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet, sourced itself from a Russian folk tale is a recent example. Although many would deny it, we still need myth and poetry. Although the ropes are near to breaking, and there are only a few wooden slats left, it is still possible to make it across the bridge if you have the ability to leap. I’m not sure how to cross over in a practical sense. I could try to get a job at the DEM and tell stories about Swan Maidens to my colleagues while we sneak up on swan nests at night to addle their eggs, but I suspect they are not hiring poets. This essay, cloaked in the logic of grammar, is a start.
So I ask you to join me in noting the parallels between ourselves and mute swans—neither of us are indigenous to this continent, and we are both beautiful. What happens when we view ourselves as the invasive species? In China they limit population growth through mandatory abortions. We in the U.S. have not yet reached that point, and I hope we never do. I pray that we find a way to merge with this land, before we and the mute swans cause more extinctions. Until this happens, we are invaders on this continent. My prayer is for us to become natives.
The way to do this is to listen to the old stories, because they are the earth’s, and contain a wisdom far greater than what can be discerned with the scientific method, which does not connect biology to the soul, although, as shown in the analysis of fairy tales by William Irwin Thompson, they contain knowledge about our biological origins that have been proven in our time by science. (His unfolding of the Rapunzel story in Imaginary Landscapes is fascinating.) This is true of many indigenous cultures today. In “The Cosmic Serpent” Jeremy Narby writes of how knowledge of DNA, the fundamental structure of life, is revealed through the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca. The growing popularity of ayahuasca in North America points to a shift in our collective consciousness. More and more of us are called to follow the shamanic path which provides a direct experience of the divine that is outside the possibilities offered by the scientific method.
Consider that our collective unconscious may have summoned the mute swan to the shores of North America because we knew we needed to be reminded, like the ugly duckling, of our own beauty, or that we called the swan to us because we need to be forced into surrendering to the truth that our actions are destroying Earth. In “Leda and the Swan,” Leda is ravished by Zeus. Forced to surrender to divine sexual ecstasy, she incubates, as I mentioned earlier, either one or two eggs. In the story where there are two, out of one hatches the divine Helen and Castor, out of the other, the mortal Polydeuces and Clytemnestra. It is Clytemnestra, the mortal child, who kills her husband, King Agamemnon. When the King in us dies we lose our sense of inner authority. Without divine guidance, the King flounders and is lost in the Wasteland, dragging the rest of us behind him to wander in the gray landscape, wondering what we are missing.
I don’t expect the DEM to stop killing swan embryos, but since we humans brought them here, we have an obligation to them as well as to the native species. This is obligation includes doing the inner work that will lead us to the satisfactory conclusion found at the end of Shakespeare’s comedies—marriage. Writer and explorer Jay Griffiths, in her conclusion to “Wild,” writes about the difference between Shakespearean comedy and tragedy. Comedy ends with us married. In tragedy we end up lying in pools of our own blood on the palace floor. Nature, which we have declared outside of us, marries everything it can. We may die on the forest floor and rot back into the soil, but that is a form of marriage, too, isn’t it?
Right now you could say that western culture is heading toward a divorce trial that will end in a settlement that is not going to make anyone happy, even if they do survive. However, there is an underground movement to bring marriage back in fresh, new ways that serve the soul, instead of the traditional function of marriage as a union to benefit material growth. When this kind of marriage becomes the standard, it will mean the two hemispheres of our brains have been re-united, our imagination will be able to assist our intellects, and we will find a way to live in balance with the rest of life, like the way we did before we believed we were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for knowing ourselves. The mute swan calls to our hearts to surrender body and soul with the fierce longing of a bird that has no voice. The swan, at home on land, earth, and air, is considered a master of all three elements. In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript,” the swan, seen as “earthed lightning” becomes a master of fire as well. Heaney writes:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown head-strong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
In this poem fire becomes the creative spark we need to ignite our vision. Notice what is required: our hearts blown open.
According to legend, the swan finally sings when it dies. My hope is that we never hear this song, unless it is in our imagination, where the aspects of ourselves that keep us from union die a glorious death, enveloped in a reverie of white wings and a song that can only be heard once in life, those moments when we swoon in the arms of our lovers. Surrendered, we know rapture, touched by the divine we become fully human. The whole planet rejoices at our wedding.