Once upon a time green-necked swans lived on Block Island, not a breed, just swans with green dyed necks. Then they were gone, and it was a long time before I noticed their absence.
There was a day a few years ago when I was down in the pond lot, the little knoll that is a sort of peninsula behind my house. Surrounded on two sides by open water, a third by Clay Head Swamp, and the last connected by solid land, it sometimes feels an island. The central part of the rise had been newly mowed, a place where the horses could be ridden in defined paths and jump over the first generation of funky barriers that included an old headboard, which made one of them balk. Autumn would go down there and bark at it as well, a benign white wall, although I never knew if it spooked her or if she merely felt the need to act in solidarity with her new friends.
The day I was there was late winter or early spring, there was old hay strewn on my neighbor’s bank lot, the stuff that had to be cleared out of the landmark barn before the new was brought in. It was rotting into the earth, a nice place for a white snowy owl to settle, perhaps hoping for a snack of fresh rodent. At the far edge of the water, the base of my certainty of the season, was a tall white egret, arrived for another season, and in the water closer to the swamp, a single white swan.
We always had swans on the island, if not in our pond, an old peat bog offering little underwater vegetation upon which to feast. They and their huge nests were a given in several locations until that day I realized I hadn’t seen much of them in a long, long time.
The swan didn’t look quite right but I was accustomed to seeing them out on Sachem — where one day a single bird was standing on the shore, the great, elegant creature suddenly awkward and out of balance, its big body on two black sticks of legs — and down on the Spring House Pond.
We had snow in abundance in the Blizzard of 1978 but we also had a coastal storm. There was drift, logs and scattered boards, as well as seaweed, on Corn Neck at the south end of the beach parking lot and the tide had swept into Sachem west of the monument but also east, into what used to be more of a pond, where the swans had one of their huge nests.
Swans, imported to adorn the created ponds of the wealthy — will we never learn — were multiplying at what was becoming an alarming rate. I was in Michigan, it couldn’t have been more than a year or two after that, for a family funeral and my uncle by then “from” California started talking of an article he’d read in Yankee magazine, about the Rhode Island DEM addling swan eggs, shaking them and returning them to their nests rather than breaking them and allowing the mother time to produce more eggs. We were in the very beginning of the deer controversy and I knew the DEM personnel he was quoting, it was a bit surreal. Perhaps
that was the start of the decline.
In any event, the swan in the pond that late winter, early spring day had a slightly off-colored neck, grayish, I presumed to be dirty although later I learned from our resident bird lady it was likely not one of the mute swans to which I was accustomed but another, the name of which I am not remembering, because “they” love to change the names of birds, in what I am convinced is a sort of conspiracy to more easily tell the real bird watchers from those of us, till talking of marsh hawks and
whichever is the wrong identification of house/English sparrows.
I do know my air dancers, the barn swallows with the long forked tails, who this year made a nest in the horses’ run-in shed, but I’ve given up on the birds who insist on coming in the open door and refuse to move themselves a few inches to the portion of window that really is wide open, but instead hurl themselves against the glass. “You can get in, you can get out” I tell them before finally grabbing a plastic container of the appropriate size and addling them, sliding them, captured, down the pane and over the molding to the open air.
Birds are a given, omnipresent from the first notes of their early morning songs to their flying about, banging against the windows, to the nest I know is there behind the snow shovel hanging in the entry.
The swans used to be a given. I am not so certain, re-reading my words, that we “always” had them, only that they were a part of the rather spartan landscape when I was growing up. They were most visible, perhaps boldest, in Sachem, where the road runs so close to the pond.
And there it was we saw their green necks, slimy I presumed, from all that eating of the slimy grasses in the pond that had been the edge of our Memorial Day afternoon dunk, the place we stopped lest we become entangled in an underwater version of the forest grown around Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
As time passed and more and more people swam in Sachem I was baffled that they could brave that horror. Then people talked of the pond being dead, of dropping rusty chains into it to pull them out, cleaned of layers of crusty oxidation.
Then Hurricane Bob breached Sachem, pushing into the pond, creating a channel that let the dead water drain for a day or two and the chemistry flipped, again. The yucky green grass came back. Swans I am seeing, again, in Sachem, but they seem more of a treat than a given which is, all in all, rather