France. Late afternoon. Lying in a recliner chair, looking up at the sky. Every day a free-falling, tumbling, wind-dancing performance by dozens of birds catching insects on the wing - though it's very hard to avoid the thought that they are not doing anything practical like subsisting, but just showing off to each other, and to me (obviously to me, I'm the human), as they dart and dive, swerve inches from the corner of the wall, barely skim the roof, miss colliding with each other by less than an intake of breath. The walls are high so looking up there is a small arena where they perform over my head, shrieking and squealing like playtime.
The first problem is what are they? Swallows? They've got what can only be called swallow-tails. No, says the Poet, who was brought up in the Country and knows these things. Too big. And swifts have bifurcated tails too. House martins or swifts. Or a mixture of all three, with the occasional something-or-other eagle circling meditatively high above them, and a couple of pigeons playing chase between the swirling little birds. The Poet proves his point with a web page full of pictures of swifts/house-martins/swallows for the bewildered. Somehow it makes it no easier to decide what they are when I look up again. Does it matter? Well, yes. I wish it didn't, but I urgently need to know the names of things, in spite of, or because of, the things neither knowing, nor probably caring what they are called. It's a sad human foible, but it has its uses for description, finding out more and taking a position.
For example, if they are swifts then I have to look at them quite differently from house martins. What I think I know about swifts though I don't know why I know, and what The Poet definitely knows from his Country Lore, is that they are always on the wing. The Romans or some such believed that they had no legs. In fact, why do they have legs? Did they once land like other birds but decided that constant eating gave them the edge over the swallows and house-martins? They fly all their lives, never stopping, snatching a quick nap while they glide. So why don't they bump into things? Why don't they fall down from exhaustion? The more I watch and think about the never-stopping swifts, the more ridiculous it seems. What about nesting? Albatrosses are always out of sight of land, but they bob about on the water to sleep and even they have an island where they land to mate and produce young. How can swifts give birth on the wing? Flying eggs? I worry a lot now about the problem.
I offer The Poet the opportunity to modify his certainty. 'For God's sake, consider...' But he is adamant. As you would want to be once you've taken up the cause of the skybound, prisoner of the air, swift. Now I'm back home in my solitarium at the top of the house, and it's all collared doves and blackbirds, but I still wake up in the night, or put off getting a sentence to make sense with the worry about the swifts that never stop flying. Oddly, neither I or The Poet have clicked on Wikipedia or the endless bird watching sites to find out the truth of the matter. It seems, we both want the idea left in the air.