I haven’t had time to review Katherine Swift’s formidably gorgous book, The Morville Hours, but it is the kind of work that is worth quoting in chunks. The book follows the monastic ‘hours’, the services of the divine office from Vigils to Compline, whilst simultaneously moving through the calendar year and the seasons. This is an excerpt from the chapter ‘Terce’, which explores – wrong word; inhabits, celebrates, bathes us in – the natural delights of the months of May and June.
“When we came out of the church we found a dead swift lying on the path, its long back-swept wings – shaped like a discus, made for speed – pale with dust. The swifts arrive last of all our summer visitors, flying north over the Sahara from central Africa to arrive at Morville in late May. But they don’t stay at Morville, unlike the swallows and house martins who return year after year to the same nests under the eaves or on the rafters of the outbuildings. The swifts are urbanites, boy-racers, party people; they cruise the sky above the Church Meadow, sieving the air for gnats with their wide-open mouths, but really they prefer the town, wheeling round the attics and the chimney pots of Bridgnorth in great shrieking mobs. Swifts are the natural acrobats of the aerial world. But once grounded they find it almost impossible to take off again. Their Latin name, Apus, comes from the Greek, meaning ‘without feet’. In fact they have strong claws with which they cling to the vertical rocky surfaces of their preferred nesting sites, but it is true that their legs are small and weak, ill-adapted for perching or walking. They eat, drink, sleep and mate in the air, returning to earth only to nest. Young birds may remain aloft for two or even three years at a time.
What must it be like to sleep on the wing, so trusting in the cushion of air to hold you up; so perfectly in your element that you are everywhere at home, with no fear of getting lost, no dread of arrival or pang of departure? [...]
One of the group tenderly stooped to life the dead bird out of the way. ‘Oh! I think it’s still alive,’ she said. In the hope that it would still have enough strength left to fly, if it could get aloft, we tossed it into the air. Silhouetted against the deep blue of the sky, the bird faltered, fluttered, fell and finally took wing.“
I don’t think of myself as a person with an inclination towards nature writing, but my goodness me, I admire this book. Actually, it’s not fair to suggest this is just about nature – history, mythology, literature, religion, and autobiography all have their place here, in glorious convergence. I won’t say any more now; I really do want to review it properly.