You hear it and read it and see it, all around our planet: people fighting for their freedom. They want freedom to live their own way, work as they please, worship in their own traditions. People die every day in the name of freedom. Here on Grand Island we celebrate the Fourth of July with a road race and a grand parade. Free as birds. Freedom is a great American treasure.
I thought about the different kinds of freedom as I watched a pair of robins working about our yard and the barn swallows that nest under the dock. The swallows build mud nests on the narrow beams under the planks and do a lot of swooping about as they feed on flying insects. There are usually a dozen or so of these birds around our dock. But there's one less today.
It happened as I was tidying up the dock, getting ready for a holiday picnic. Earlier in the spring I had salvaged two old planks that had floated downriver and then got hung up on our pilings. I had fished them out and placed them on the dock to dry. I thought I could use them as walkways in my vegetable garden, or maybe to shore up the raised beds.
I dragged the smaller one away and stacked it with the rest of our "used" planks. The second plank was long and heavy, so I walked it up on its end and then let it go, plop, one length closer to shore. Immediately came such a squawking and screeching that I knew I had caused a disturbance somewhere. The impact had startled one of the fledgling swallows nesting under the dock and she had fallen from her perch into the river. She was swimming valiantly upstream, her wings too wet to fly.
She flapped them vigorously, but just could not become airborne. She used her wings as oars to propel herself along, but lost ground, starting to come downriver with the current.
I grabbed my plastic bucket, hoping to scoop her up as she floated by. Instead, the sight of it gave her renewed strength and she turned, fighting her way upriver once more. She tried persistently to reach land, only to come up against the steel seawall again and again.
I figured she would have to travel at least 600 feet upriver before reaching a natural shoreline. Would her strength hold out? How long could she stay afloat? I followed the bird with my bucket, tramping through the tall weeds, constantly peering over the edge of the wall, noting her progress, thinking I might still have a chance to rescue her. I saw her bobbing steadily along and then she disappeared around a bend. I scanned the water for a few minutes, but found no sign of her. Perhaps she had reached safety.
Back at the dock her friends and neighbors were still sounding the alarm, flying every which way, crying out in dismay, to my mind, at least. I took a good look at the dock and spotted a wee bit of the mud nest tucked just underneath the place where I had been working. Why hadn't I thought to be more careful?
Hoping for the best, I continued with my chores, watering the potted geraniums, sweeping the twigs from the deck and the old wood chips from the dock. Pausing to rest a moment and enjoy the clear summer morning, I noticed something in the water, about 20 feet from shore. It was the little swallow, floating with the current, face down, wings outspread, feathers sodden. Once more there was a disturbance by the other swallows, and then quiet -- a silent moment for a brave little bird. A guilty conscience for this bungling intruder. Freedom lost.
Ruth Stahl of Grand Island watched as a tiny swallow fought against all odds.