The Aerobatic Swift

Out on the red-tiled terrace off the top floor of our Collegio Internazionale, there are many miracles. In one direction, the pride of Urbino – a bell tower that can surprise with alleluias through the old brick alleyways, and behind that, the glory of the Duomo. In the other direction, nature’s plotted palette of slant fields, flowers and row trees, backed by the two mountains framing Furlo Gorge.

Another rooftop gathering, this one hosting visitors from journalism programs: Rachele Kanigel from San Francisco State U., left, talking to Deni Chamberlin; Gregory Pitts from Middle Tennesssee; Sam Fulwood III, dean of the J school at American U, and Uche Onyebadi, chair of the journalism department at Texas Christian.

But these are nothing compared to the miracle of the swifts.

They dart overhead in the bluest of skies, clearing it of invisible bugs as if to make that sky more perfect than human imagination could make it. When it’s cleared by the swifts, God brings on the pinks and reds of sunset.

I have been out on the empty terrace at dawn, pretending I know yoga but really just there to watch for the swifts. There are a lot more of them at dusk, when the ieiMedia faculty family gathers, furnishing the terrace with chairs, tables and a feast of local foods and wine.

The swifts seem to strafe and dive-bomb us like Spitfires. They are swifter than the eye, or our cameras, can follow.

I’ve read that swifts may be the fastest creatures on earth, built for speed and surprise. The Romans named them “no legs,” because they never saw them land, though we know they rest in vertical surfaces inside towers and chimneys. They are elegantly designed for speed, in points like a stellar polyhedron. The wings taper to dagger points, the small head a mere bump, the tail a tapered point until it divides like a clothes pin to make a quick turn. The quick turns outsmart – out-dart – the bugs (except those lucky enough to enter through our wide-open bedroom window). A small squadron of swifts whooshes over our heads, and we instinctively and pointlessly duck, then laugh.

I remember the end of a little poem by Robert Graves, “Flying Crooked.” It’s about the cabbage white butterfly, an obvious metaphor for those of us who feel a little like Robert Graves – fools whose “crooked flight” (through education, wilderness and life) brings us to miracles like Urbino. Compared to the amazing swifts, we’re all like that crooked-flying butterfly.

He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Urbino, from atop the Fortezza. In the background, Mt. Pietralata and Mt. Paganuccio.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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