Many of us have the mental image of nature as somehow kinder, sweeter, more gentle than the lives we lead. On a fundamental reality level, I knew that wasn’t true, but as long as all I saw were flying birds and leaping squirrels, I could ignore the rest. Even knowing that the large eat the small, and the strong kill the weak, that nature is fierce.
Nonetheless, the rattlesnake and snapping turtle have as much a right to their dinners as the bright yellow finch or the ladder-backed woodpecker. I didn’t realize how many of the creatures in my own backyard bore significant scars from hawks and foxes and bobcats until I got a distance lens and saw it myself.
A hurt squirrel
With the camera, I see many of the animals I photograph bear significant scars and damage from attacks by other creatures. Some have healed, others have disappeared and probably didn’t survive.
This is a story about love and nature.
Clytemnestra’s Lament: The Story of the Swans – By Karin Laine McMillen
We bought our swans, as all the bourgeois do.
They came in the US mail, in boxes with pointed tops. We had a swan release party. Restricted beauty reigned as pinioned swans flew across our one acre, man-made, engineered and certified pond.
A swan on the lake at the farm
Relocating swans is a precarious commitment. An unexpectedly large rectangular enclosure needs to be built in advance, part of it in the water and the remainder on land. This is so the pair can acclimate to their habitat, lest they try to walk back to Illinois from whence they came.
Named Illich and Odette after the heroine of Swan Lake by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they acted as guardians of my gentleman’s farm and performed their duties of chasing geese and eating the algae with instinctual vigor.
Every spring our female, distinguished by her slightly diminutive size, built a large, perfectly round nest which always reminded me of Big Bird’s nest from Sesame Street. The first year, she just built it. I don’t know if she had eggs or not, but if she did they didn’t hatch.
Illich, Odette, with cygnets
The second year, my family arrived for the weekend from New York to discover four baby swans on the pond with their parents. We quickly discovered, or more accurately researched, that baby swans are named cygnets. We disseminated that information to anyone who would listen.
The following weekend I was saddened to see only two cygnets. My toddler was fascinated by who might have “eatted” them. I grabbed my camera to be sure to capture the fluffy whiteness and inspiring family unit in action. I unrealistically fantasized about having two sets of swans forever gracefully adorning our pond.
I don’t remember how long the last two babies lived, but at some point in the spring, I heard that one of the cygnets had been dragged out of the pond and eaten by a snapping turtle. I was furious, and have been trying to kill those prehistoric looking creatures ever since.
Swans with cygnets
The following year I became excited in the early spring as Odette started constructing her nest and proceeded to sit on it for weeks on end, for a gestation time I never fully researched.
On May 4th, 2007 the French National Orchestra was touring with Kurt Masur on the podium. The date stuck with me due to my bird-loving grandmothers anniversary of birth. New Yorkers turned out in droves to see their former popular conductor. I was seated in one of the side boxes at Carnegie Hall with a fellow musician. We were beyond excited to hear Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony as the highlight of the program.
Our familiarity with the work was such that we glanced nervously at each other when the horns flubbed their perfect fifths in the first movement. We knew that the difficult horn solo at the beginning of the second movement was extremely exposed, and would dictate the success of the evening.
I went to bed on a high that I am convinced one can only get from music and had an unnerving and unexpectedly feverish dream filled with violence and unrest. Black and white converged; blood, death, and fear prevailed. I woke in a sweat and shortly got the call.
It happened that the previous evening. My darling Odette was ripped to shreds by a bear. She was guarding her eggs.
When haunted by the violent passages of Tchaik 5, I still reflect on my culpability. Did I doom this mother by naming her after a heroine who dances herself to death?
Illich on New Year’s Day
Illich in summer
Ava, nearly white
Illich survived. He graced our pond for season upon season. I often wonder if he sang in mourning for his bride and offspring, while I sat ninety miles away in a red velvet adorned box at Carnegie Hall.
Years later, on a spring morning, I got a call informing me that the body of Illich was immobile on the land beside the pond. I envisioned him with his beautiful neck resting on the ground. I begged our sensitive caretaker to bury him appropriately on the property.
Last spring a single grey swan grace our pond for a little while. He did not stay. This spring another has been spotted and I am nearly desperate for him to stay. Precariously, I follow the new swan with my camera as I stroll around the pond on Memorial Day.
My nearly white golden retriever and the white swan seem to have come to an equilibrium. My retriever seems to inherently understand the complex relationships before him. My mind weaves restlessly between questions and wishes.
Do I dare name him? Will he find a bride? Will they stay?
Suddenly peace washes over me with the warm breeze and I hear a whisper: “Nature, as is her habit, will forgive.”