In proportion to their size, the vertical tunnel was endlessly long and deepened into the mysterious void that waited to swallow them. But undeterred they came, spiraling down like a slow motion cyclone until they disappeared one by one into the dark and sooty tube’s gaping maw.
For over an hour, the flock had been forming for their assault on the dark depths, constricting into a funnel cloud while coiling above their target. In a sudden unpredictable moment, the leaders, which led from the bottom of the spiral, swept into the chimney tower with the followers streaming in behind them, until the dark cloud of birds resembled smoke wafting into the chimney instead of out.
This cloud of a thousand birds and more wound into the sky above the smokestack to a height many times the height of the tower, and as they crowded to the brick- edged top, some would flutter with hesitation until they fell back to a higher position to try again.
* * * * *
Spacious and solid, the commanding brick building was all that a historical site could merit, with stoic columns and cantilever beams supporting the large dormer fronting the main avenue. Extensive lawns and trees surrounded the large structure, which boasted rows of large, paned windows gazing down on roses in full bloom.
Far to the right, a handsome lane lined with towering white cedars meandered to the nearby river. To the left and behind the building, generous park grounds hosted soccer fields with youths at play, and beyond, the fields became spiked with rows and rows of uniform white headstones, marking veterans that had played on the fields of war.
Through the windows and inside, an art reception bubbled with activity as the crowded hall absorbed fine art gathered from America’s Northwest, for this is the home of the Umpqua Valley Art Association and the opening night of their Artworks Northwest show. The displays of art were accompanied by singing, laughing, socializing, refreshments and the suspense of an awards ceremony.
The celebration of fine arts left an infectious high lingering over the assembly as the bright spring day blended into a summer like evening. When the event waned along with the evening, light conversation with my friends and family continued on the back steps of the quaint art center, and we were all loath to leave as often happens when in good company, until the art show became empty and quiet.
Looking across the parking lot to the prominent brick chimney standing stark in the setting sun, the subject of the swift migrations came into the conversation. Why not stay longer for the possibility of watching this annual spectacle of nature?
When the Art Director Aleta McGee began locking up for the night, we quizzed her about the swifts. “Two weeks ago I watched and photographed as they darkened the sky,” she exclaimed. She thought it was possible that they would still be active in their spring migration routines.
As shadows disappeared in the impending twilight, I looked skywards to see a scattering of swallow- like birds darting through the atmosphere overhead. As if on cue, they were beginning to gather!
But this was just the teaser, as the minutes dragged on with only random birds milling about. “It’s like waiting for a Fourth of July firework display,” I lamented. “You wait and wait and it seems forever getting dark enough for the flash of sparks to show.”
Confounding nature provoked more questions. “How do they cling to the vertical walls inside the chimney?” mused my wife Carlin, “With so many birds, how do they all find a comfortable place to roost, or even fit inside?”
Inevitably, slowly, the dark clouds of birds formed, and we watched as they poured into the towering chimney, watched as the very last ones disappeared and the sky was empty again. After fluttering about for many miles, they had come home to roost.
Like the spiraling of the swifts, I had traversed ever widening circles radiating out from my earliest career days at this art center. Set in a greenway along the South Umpqua River, the term hometown art center rings true, since my birthplace was less than a mile upstream by that same river.
Where on Earth?! Roseburg, Oregon May 2012