Between the city and the sky

Zoe Cuckow, who’s been involved with Earth Justice at SJP for the last 3 years, talks about swifts, being a community and facing the future together.

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Church Window Mask

Living in such a busy city as London, I often forget to look up. My eyes are so taken in by all the noise, colour and distractions of street level, I often don’t give the sky a second thought; it’s simply there. Always has been, always will. However in recent months, I’ve started noticing it more and more. All summer there have been flocks of swifts that swoop, freewheel and soar above my flat at alarming speed, darting here and there, missing chimney stacks and rooflines by inches. With such a piercing, shrill cry, they scream “Look up!”

By watching these birds, day after day, that I’ve started to revel in the vastness of the sky again, its many patterns of light, cloud and vapour trails and its simple, colossal hugeness. These tiny little birds magnify the vastness of the sky, revealing the hidden trails and air currents, feeding as they go. Swifts are a very unique kind of bird, a true creature of the skies; once they fledge, they spend all their lives in the air. Some pause their flights for a season to nest, but this is a temporary blip in an otherwise airborne existence.

Swifts were sometimes called “devil birds” because of their dark shadowy forms and high-pitched, long drawn-out screech. But I love their sound, it is a song of utter freedom and unbridled, otherworldly ecstasy. It is a joy although disconcerting in its otherworldliness. It is not the safe ground-anchored song of a robin or a blackbird, as beautiful as they are too.

And what can this creature of the high heavens have to say to a ground dweller like me or you? Their freedom feels so different to ours; yet it is a perfectly practical, repetitive behaviour that enables the swifts’ seemingly random, unfettered lives. And here is their secret. In her beautifully written and imaginative book, Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald describes how every day at dawn and dusk, flocks rise together in so-called “vesper flights”. Swifts fly very, very high in the sky to the point where the earth’s daily weather systems meet the stiller, calmer air of cumulus clouds that determine the earth’s larger-scale weather systems. From this high vantage point, swifts recalibrate and gather information from the wind, stars, clouds and the magnetic fields of the atmosphere and so determine the approaching weather. The sophistication of their calculations has astonished scientists. Helen MacDonald writes “what they are doing is flying so high they can work out exactly where they are, to know exactly what they should do next. They’re quietly, perfectly, orienting themselves.”

As we celebrated St James’s day recently, I wonder how to live this kind of freedom that the swifts know so well, whilst still being anchored by the familiar patterns of life, worship and events that form our day-to-day lives and community at St James’s. As just as swifts rise and discern in flocks, we are called to live this out together. We live in such a turbulent city and time that it can be hard to look up, to look at the future without fearing what is to come. Maybe swifts can give us hope. Helen Macdonald writes that for her, swifts are a model of community. She says “Surely some of us are required… to look clearly at the things that are so easily obscured by the everyday.” These birds have a far-sightedness and collective wisdom that is far beyond our earthly human imagination.

To me, there is something deeply Christian about Helen Macdonald’s vision of swifts as a model for community (although she wouldn’t say that herself, as far as I know.) In this vision and model of living, we are caught between two realities of stillness and busyness, travelling again and again between the two. Swifts are no respecter of boundaries; they simply soar. As human and non human beings in Creation, we all inhabit the vastness of the skies and extravagance of God’s love. They are bold explorers of the skies, we are summoned to open-hearted, open-minded seekers in the city below.

These swifts challenge us. They make us realise how we can be more human by showing how they are not. So how can we rise above the tumult to see the truth of things and yet return again to the dust and turbulence of the world below? Can we bear to cling to the memory and hope of those clear skies above, braced for all that may come? Can we allow ourselves to open up to the possibilities of living differently and soar freely, even in darkening hours and times?

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

Common Swift Call

Common Swift