Chapter 15

The nuns of the air

 The newspaper Dagbladet prints in its Tuesday edition of April 22nd  a front page story about the diminishing number of migratory birds in Northern Europe: ”Our dear migratory birds vanish”.

            Pictured on the front page are a swallow (”svale”), a lapwing (”vipe”), a garden warbler (”hagesanger”), and a cuckoo. All these species and several others have shown decreasing numbers in the years after 1967.

            The reason for the decrease is stated in a subtitle: ”Climate change to blame”.

             Dagbladet’s story has as its prime source a report by British ornithologists published by the British newspaper The Independent. Scientific bird research in Great Britain has revealed a steady decrease in the number of birds that migrate from Africa to the British Isles.

             A possible reason for this is that the Sahara Desert expands because of the climate change. This makes it difficult for birds to cross the Sahara on their flight to Europe. Another reason is thought to be the change in agriculture in Europe.

            The number of willow warblers (”løvsangere”) in Britain has gone down by 60 percent.

            The situation in Norway is equal to that in Britain, says Ingar Jostein Øien in Norsk Ornitologisk Forening (The Norwegian Ornithological Society). He fears that some of the wellknown and loved species of migratory birds may disappear from our fauna in the near future.

            From the window in my writing room I can see the branches of the Blood Tree.

             On one of the branches sits a small bird, green-grey in colour. I fetch my binoculars and go out on the veranda to study the little bird. It has a characteristic white stripe over the eye. I guess it is a willow warbler. If the bird would start to sing, I would know for sure.

            The willow warbler is the most common species of all birds in Norway. I remember having seen an estimate of our willow warbler population counting it to more than half a million.

            It is a bird more easily heard than seen, clever to hide in the bushes and the tall grass. Now I probably see one. All of a sudden the bird on the branch starts to sing. But is the soft melody that of a willow warbler? I thought I would be sure when hearing the song, but I am not sure.

            My father knew how to imitate the song of all the most common birds of Norway. I have not inherited his skill. I lack the musicality one needs to recognize and imitate birdsong.

            I go down from the porch to get a closer view. The bird is scared and flies away.

            ”I think we’ll say you are a willow warbler,” I say. ”Welcome, and congratulations for passing the vast Sahara and reaching the High North.”

            I await the arrival of the swallows. Under our roof there is a colony of house martins (”taksvaler”). In a good season they occupy as many as eight nests. The nests are of a permanent character, built from clay. But sometimes the woodpeckers destroy the house martin nests in autumn, and the swallows when returning in spring have to repair the nests or build new from scratch.

            Our house martins normally arrive on May 1st, as if they want to celebrate Labour day with us. In a cold spring they may arrive a few days later, in a warm spring a few days earlier. I have been told by ornithologist friends that many house martins migrate to Norway from Egypt. Since they come from Egypt, they do not have to cross the Sahara. This fact should make our hope of their survival in Norway a realistic hope.

            I am going to speak at Katarinahjemmet. It is not only a home for Catholic students and a guest house for visitors. It is also a small convent, a nunnery, where ten sisters of the Dominican order reside. I have been told that some of the nuns will be present at the meeting.

            Could I tell the nuns that I call the house martins the nuns of the air?

              If you look closely at a house martin, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the bird looks like a nun. Its dominating colour is black, but it has a white breast, and its feathers thus remind us of the traditional black and white costume of a nun.

             The nuns of the air dominate the air space around our house form the beginning of May until September 1st. The house martins are diligent like nuns. Yes, they are working hard to find food. They survive on what ornithologists call ”plankton of the air”, all the little insects that float about in the air.

             The house martins brood in their nests and make children, which nuns of course do not do. So I should stop my comparison here. But it is tempting to draw it a bit further. If one does not consider the intense baby-making of the swallows, but only look at their nests, the nests may be compared to small monasteries. Inside those monasteries the nuns of the air come together to pray. Did I write pray? Yes, and I hope this does not sound like blasphemy.

             In summertime I listen to the lively sound coming from the monasteries under our roof. We humans think of the sound house martins make as a continuous jabber which has no deeper meaning. But what do we really know about that? Perhaps the vivacious gabbling of the house martins is something more than social smalltalk to pass the evening, that what they do is to pray to the god of the swallows.

             When I was a child, I grew up in a family which was not religious. But I was baptized in the chapel at Larkollen shortly after the end of World War Two, when a wave of enthusiasm for liberation from the German occupation of Norway made even people who were not firm believers baptize their babies. And of course religion was a subject of conversation also in our family. We have a saying in Norway: ”Små gryter har store hanker”, small pots have big handles, meaning that little children have big ears. Children catch a lot of what the grown-ups say. I listened to the adults and heard about Heaven and Hell.

             One day, after my cousin and I had found a dead house martin on the lawn and buried it under a cross made of twigs from a plum tree, I asked my mother if the swallows would go to Heaven.

             Family legend has it that she answered yes.     

             I do not believe in a God for humans, or a god for swallows. What I do believe in, is the sensation of living. And I do not think that this sensation is reserved for humans only.

             When I see the nuns of the sky fly, I always think that it is not instinct only that makes them fly, but that they feel joy by doing it.

             My grandmother wanted to pull down the nests under our roof because the dung the house martins produced irritated her. On this we disagreed. I protested and said that I loved the birds. I said that I was willing to scrape the bird droppings off the veranda floor. I have a vague memory that I really did this, equipped with a toy spade and a small bucket.     

            For generations the house martins have nested under the roof of the house. They have no dangerous, life-threatening enemies in the air. I have never heard about big birds of prey managing to catch flying swallows. The nuns of the air fly too fast to be caught by hawks or falcons. But enemies they have.

            All the way from South Africa come the swifts (”tårnseilere”). Their flight pattern during migration has been mapped, and it seems they follow the Nile to avoid flying over the Sahara. The swifts do not nest under our roof. I think they nest in the old bell tower on the barn of the neighbouring farm. From there they come flying by to fight with our house martins about air space and air plankton.

            Then a transformation takes place with our peaceful nuns. They organize themselves in what I call The Egyptian Airforce. The swifts are bigger and fly much more rapidly than the house martins. We applaud our Egyptian Airforce in these air battles. The black-and-white house martins split up their formation, duck and fly away when the all-black South African Airforce strikes with full force, but our brave small pilots come back and never give up their territory.         

            Oh, gosh! What I wrote here may sound racist. It was not my intention to attack the South African Airforce for being black, but just to point out the fact that swifts have a dark colour.

            Should I mention the nuns of the air for the nuns at Katarinahjemmet? I am in a joking mood, but try to give the matter some serious consideration. Mentioning the nuns of the air for the nuns of the earth might ease the situation between Catholics and atheist. But if the Dominican nuns think my joke is no good fun, the situation may become tense.

            It strikes me that Dominican nuns do not dress in black and white. I have seen pictures of them, and their costume is grey. Obviously it would be pointless to compare them to house martins.   

       Chapter 14

Chapter 16