Children of Lir?
Tundra Swans on the upper Mississippi River
A story from Irish folklore tells of some royal children who were placed under a spell by a jealous stepmother, left to fly about as swans for hundreds of years. The spell could only be broken when two warring clans were joined in marriage. The event came to pass, the swans turned back into people, people who were very old, then almost immediately died.
Maybe not. The Tundra Swans have arrived in our area yet again, as they do each fall. Warring clans don't bring them here, or perhaps they do. They spend the summers in the high latitudes near the Arctic Circle, then head to our coasts when the "warring" winter storms move in to chase them off. The Mississippi River valley is a stopover at which they will remain in the tens of thousands until ice makes dipping below the surface for tubers impossible. It would seem that in one form or another, cold and ice are warring against these magnificent beauties.
I have watched the backwaters just across the highway from the school where I teach the past few weeks for signs of their approach. It took a post from Fred Lesher on wisbird to find out they'd arrived for the season. Each post would bring the numbers higher and higher until one day Fred said, "Maybe 20,000, you count!"
There have been wars of a sort fought by one of my own children of Lir for a time now, and finally that child was ready to break the curse. It required not an evil stepmother's intervention, but that of his loving parents, to cast the new spell needed to help him. No one gives out instruction manuals when a child is born, and perhaps it's just as well. If one were able to read of all the possible challenges, our species would never survive.
After making a tough phone call, it seemed like the best thing I could do would be to go see the swans for myself. On a glorious fall afternoon, I was on an overlook in Minnesota, facing a huge ribbon of feathery white stretching in front of me. The river flapped and tipped; sometimes it took flight in small drifts. A wonderful cacophony of cooing created the soundtrack for this spectacle. Adding to the drama, huge kettles of Bald Eagles would soar and stream just above the blufftops behind me.
Each fall, I make it a point to spend some time appreciating the majesty of this special migration. Each fall, as I watch the swans, I'm reminded of the strange story of the Children of Lir. This fall, as I watched them, I had a moment's respite from all the hurt, but I also couldn't help but think---when the spell is finally broken, will my swan come out stronger than even before? I can hope that in this real-life story, he will return himself, just as these swans will pass through again next spring, heading back to the high Arctic.