Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Death by Swan

Death by Swan

By Meg Sonata

A wing span eight feet wide?  Is this the creature that courted the Leda in Ovid’s rendition of “Leda and the Swan”?  The story in the Los Angeles Times never refers to the classical myth of the great swan who was Zeus in disguise, but the proportions of the bird stun the reader.  Wings twice as wide as the bird’s height!  For all of its four feet from foot to head, it only weighs 30 pounds, on average, according to that article.   

The title announces the inevitable outcome when man takes on swan:  “’Killer’ swan attacks Illinois caretaker until he drowns.” 

Who should wonder that this animal can kill if it chooses?  Those magnificent wings transform into shields, clouds, and waves at the drop or shift of a feather.  They harbor cygnets, plow the deep, and then shift into daggers aimed in any direction.  No wonder, too, that the most famous ballet in dance history consists of a tribute to this awesome beast.  Comparing the statistics, it becomes clear:  This creature is almost all wings. 

It was this reader’s distinct privilege to grow up in the company of these birds.  On the tiny lake at the center of Cassadaga, New York, these mythical animals turn up the minute the snow releases them from their winter residence.  The impression created by their return is that they have come from the snow—and will return to it when winter overwhelms the village.  They are the snow, in all its killer capacity—and beauty, too.

The village next door, Lily Dale, New York, even reenacts the grandest ballet for residents every time they walk down Dale Drive.  At this next settlement, the swans swimming on a second lake are black, black as the most perfect top soil—and the perfect foil to the white of winter.  Think of obsidian in one location, and pearls in the next.  Then, imagine both being available to the traveler on foot who can span the distance without even overworking the imagination.

Then think of the poor human who got into a conflict with this bird in the LA Times report.  What chance did he have, fighting for his life?  Whole boats at amusement parks take the form of this creature.  On carousels, you may mount one and ride, if you wish.  The better part of wisdom would be:  Don’t even try.  They belong to the realm of Art, where artists compete to render them in oil, marble, and everything but feathers, because, who really understands feathers?

We can crush feathers, preen feathers, and sock them together in a bed.  Not once has humankind created a bird out of these elements which could span eight feet and kill a man, if it took it into its head or neck to do so.  The necks of such birds are used in combat between males, of course, and for attacking, if they choose.  But combine that lethal garden hose with shields of wings and a rampant beak—what can a man do but go under?

And let him go under the waves.  What will he do there against paddling feet that can stand, grasp, or mount an assault upon the air?  The white flash we see as these creatures mount the air should serve as a warning, which the classical authors of mythology got right:  We charge into their territory—and they are infamously territorial—at our peril.  The lake belongs to them, the winter and summer, too.  What remains for us to do but shiver in their reflections? 

For great works of art on this theme, as wells as a historical overview of swans rampant, see

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