Sunday, March 25, 2012

Swanning Around

I have no memory of ever seeing a real live swan when I was growing up. Swans existed only in books and music. And they were always something out of the ordinary in those books and music. In fact, swans were so out of the main stream for me that I didn’t even understand the significance of “The Ugly Duckling” when I first heard it. I don’t know who was reading it to me, but she must have had dim hopes for my intellectual development when she came to the end of the story with the words, “He looked at his reflection in the pond and saw that he was… A SWAN.” I sat there dumb, uncomprehending and unmoved. She had to show me the pictures of how cute the little ducklings were and how dull the little protagonist of the story, until the last page, when he was now a glorious specimen, glowing brilliant white with elegant curves and clearly far superior to all the brown ducks paddling about in the pond.

Later on I read the story of Leda and the Swan. Now the swan was not only gorgeous but also powerful and liked to get his own way (to put it politely). This myth gave a whole new meaning to “swanning around.” About the same time, “Swan Lake” introduced me to female swans. While they may not have been powerful, they had come into being through magic. So I got to my 20th year with only myth and magic associated with swans.

The summer before my senior year in college I went to England for the first time as part of a summer program geared to English majors and hosted by Trinity College, Oxford. I saw live swans for the first time. I might as well have been seeing unicorns; swans still seemed that unreal. Of course there would be swans and unicorns in England, which was (and, if I am honest, still is) the magic kingdom for me. Kings and queens. Castles and moats. Sherwood Forest. They’re all there! As for swans, in England they are royal in addition to being magical. The Queen annually counts her swans at the July Swan Upping ceremony. Twelve years later, when Jon and I did our first trip to England together, we stayed at the Swan Inn in Bibury, in the heart of the Cotswolds. At the Swan Inn, which is right at the junction of the B4425 and the county lane going up to Ablington Grove, we could look out our window to see swans gliding around in the River Coln. But that wasn’t real either, because we had clearly been dropped into a Constable painting, or a postcard, the long, low dwellings dripping with honey, the green swards the color of smoky emeralds. Soon we were back at Heathrow, heading home. (Note: There is nothing magical about the mess at Heathrow.)

Then…last year we had a stroke of good fortune, and we purchased a small cottage on Cape Cod, our vacation destination on and off for 30+ years. The cottage is on a narrow dirt lane that runs between two ponds before dead-ending into a summer camp for city kids.  The first weekend that we owned the cottage I walked down to the nearer pond with one of our new neighbors and—there they were. A family of swans just meandering about the pond. Our pond! Our swans! I was dumbstruck and stared and stared at the magnificent mother and father, with their trail of “ugly ducklings” close behind, gliding next to the shoreline, heading our way. I didn’t even need binoculars!

We’ve now been going up to the cottage for nearly a year and I’ve learned that there are swans all over the place on Cape Cod. How I missed that for the previous 30 years, I do not know. If you Google “swans, Cape Cod,” you get 2.8 million search results. I am not kidding. Just within a 6-mile radius of our cottage we came upon Swan Lake and Swan River. There is even a Swan Inn. In its February 24 issue, "The Cape Codder" ran a front-page photo of two grown swans literally necking, looking silly, while their nearly grown cygnet stood behind them, looking embarrassed. (Typical teenager.) And I have learned that swans can be a royal pain in the neck, especially if you are trying to take a swim and they think you’ve gotten a little too close to their territory.

Nevertheless, when I walk down to our pond’s overgrown landing early in the morning and the mist is still rising and all is quiet and I see gliding along the far shore “our” swans – they are still magical to me.

Swans, at summer's end...

1 comment: