"We live our lives as we dream-alone." Joseph Conrad

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Ash to Ashes

Readers notifying the letters pages of the Daily Telegraph upon their first annual sighting of the swallow has long been a parody in Private Eye. For the first time in fifty years of living on my farm I can date this year's appearance to the 8th April, so I have clearly reached the age and stage for satire.

These doughty little birds, which I recall my late father saying (in his own distinctive way) "Always F**K in flight", nest in the tallots as the upper parts of barns in Devon are called. Daily they criss-cross the farmyard like rapier points slashing at the air.

We have two ginger farm cats who pay them no attention. The terrier sometimes looks up in bemusement, wishing he could fly. Just once or twice in the nesting season I take my daughter to look at the nests, and to understand why we leave the tallots undeveloped.

Recently, we have found not one but two adult swallows dead by their different nests. I checked with Ken who has worked on our farm all my life and he has never known of this before.

The answer, if there is one, seems to be that they have fallen victim of the recent entry into the atmosphere of Icelandic volcanic ash. In the way of Daily Telegraph letter writers, I wonder if anyone else has made this sad discovery and reached the same conclusion?

We have buried both swallows in the grave we keep for pets. Their little bodies, with their auburn markings about their throats, fine black wings like the tail coats of morning dress, deserve no less.

What I found most moving as we did this was the absolute trivia with which people claimed they had been stranded by volcanic ash. One strandee, with whom I was due to have lunch in White's, had his personal assistant write to me with his attempted movements to get back from the Middle East and keep the appointment.

It read like the script for 'Round the World in Eighty Days.' And I pondered the intelligence of swallows who can find their way back to their nesting grounds in England without a compass or a secretary, back to the place where they were born. What a sadness for two of them that this would also be the place they should die.


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