The other day, as I worked in the barn, I noticed a trapped barn swallow flying helplessly back and forth through the rafters, futilely looking for the way out. With alarmed chirps, it kept returning to the quatrefoil window set high up in the gable. I understood what was happening – that was the highest opening and light streamed through it. It was in the swallow’s nature to seek it out for escape. The window had been sealed off with wire years ago. So the frightened bird would just perch on a section of the wire and look out into the world it was so desperate to rejoin.
There were a few small openings in the barn that were large enough for a little bird to pop right through, but those were closer to the floor and the swallow was focused on the highest points – always looking upwards. I realized just how many ways it could escape if only it would look lower, but the barn swallow couldn’t help it – looking up was in its nature. Every so often, I would hear its chirps and catch a glimpse of it making another flight around the rafters, vainly seeking its freedom.
As I worked, I worried and fretted to myself about the fate of this little trapped bird. I attempted to help it in what ways I could and opened the entrance for stretches of time to provide a way out. The trapped swallow would make its rounds high above me, but it never made it to that open doorway. I talked to it, tried to reason with it, explained the ways it could escape, but, of course, that was silly, foolish, ridiculous – a childlike attempt to help.
I’d observe the swallow again and again as it perched at that quatrefoil window, so close to what it was seeking. And I’d feel a twinge of sadness watching this little creature as it watched the outside world. I wondered if it knew the hopelessness of its situation – did it sense what this meant? Its instincts that had helped it survive were now failing it. The swallow didn’t consider coming down to the ground when it was part of its very being to stay up high. It couldn’t help it, it was in its nature.
Before I left for the day, I tried one more silly pep talk about how it could escape and promised to return in the morning. As I closed and locked the door, sealing the barn swallow off from what seemed to be its best chance of escape, I felt a sinking feeling, reluctant to accept the harsher realities of life, as always.
The next morning, I opened the barn door with a mixture of hope and apprehension. I called out to rouse the swallow, but no answering chirps followed. I turned on the lights and sought out the bird. I looked up to the quatrefoil window last, dreading that I would see the swallow so hopelessly perched there, not wanting to revisit that sadness of watching it as it watched the world.
Relief…a little joy…renewed hope for good things…the swallow wasn’t there!
It had escaped at some point. Maybe it was finally able to find whatever little hole it had entered through high up in the rafters. Or maybe it actually was in its nature to look down when it really needed to, after all. I walked out of the barn with a sense relief and peace and hope about the nature of things.
On the walk back to the museum, I noticed a little dark shape on the ground along the path. It was a dead barn swallow.
My spirit revolted at the senselessness of the whole situation. Was there some lesson to be learned here…something about cruel twists of fate or death not being cheated or a balance being kept? Or maybe it was less ominous – a lesson about learning to accept life’s realities and what’s beyond our control or understanding.
I don’t know…I really don’t…
What I do know is this: I’m beginning to dread that barn.