Iridescence in Nature

Print More

Back when we were kids roaming the neighborhood, we knew a thing or two about the elder generation. Several of the kids up the street had white haired grandparents who lived with them, and mine were diagonally across the street. Most of the grandparents looked and acted like grandparents wearing house coats and long pants even on the hottest of days. The trend for having the grandparents, look young or more hip, thankfully, had not hit Suffield yet. Those neighborhood elders were happy with their weekly trips to the beauty parlor for their permanents and immersed themselves in work around their homes. We’d scamper through their yards with snakes wrapped around our necks hoping to get a rise out of them, and often that happened. The geriatric sets were a tiny bit scary, and we mostly avoided them as we made the rounds looking for a game of kick the can or pilfering some clothes pins to make our Schwinn bikes sound like a force to be reckoned with. Even my own grandpa around the corner had a kind of stern side. I gave him a wide berth and he returned the favor.

But my best friend had a peach of a grandpa we called Pop.

He was a cheerful, diminutive man dressed in a checked shirt each day working around his farm. A retired postal worker, he maintained several barns with precision, cutting back the lilacs and mowing under the water tower. He was tireless and eternally cheerful as he tended his bleeding heart plants, cut rhubarb from his vegetable garden and painted the trim on the barn. He called me “Abi-jail“. I loved that. One summer he was set to re-gravel his extensive driveway, and he bought bags of iridescent ground stone which my friend and I quickly discovered in his barn. We would dip our hands into the bags and marvel at the little sparkling black diamonds that would stick to our scrawny arms. We would let it pool in our palms, mesmerized. Each day all summer long I would take a pocketful of the crushed stone back home with me. By the end of the summer, I had probably transported several bags worth, leaving a trail of iridescent dust along the way. But Pop never said a cross word.

And when I wasn’t pilfering his stash of luminous gravel, I had my eyes on his resident swallows and their iridescent feathers. If my memory serves me correctly, he had a pair of tree swallows which spent most of their days in the fields catching insects. We would be trying to make grass whistle while we studied the tree swallows, and when the sun hit their feathers, it was a sight to behold. A true flash of iridescence contrasting their white breasts. Depending on the color of the sky, they would change from blue to green to black. Admiring them while sitting next to my best friend seemed like a pretty awesome way to spend a summer day.

Photo by Joan Heffernan
Tree swallows taking a break from catching insects show off their iridescence while resting on bluebird houses.

Right about now, tree swallows are returning to town after spending their winters down south. They often look to move into bluebird houses. Once there, they show off their luminous feathers when they are not catching just about every insect in sight. The female will build a cup shaped nest in a tree cavity or bird house and lay between four and seven eggs. She will then spend the summer feeding her growing brood and making a significant dent in the insect population. Then when their job of parenting is done for the season, they, like many other types of swallows, form large groups in which to migrate. It is a spectacle worth seeing at the end of the summer. And there are swallow watching tours downstate if you don’t want to take my word for it. But for now, I have my eyes peeled for that first swallow. Believe me, when I catch my first glimpse of those iridescent feathers I will be thinking about my friend’s Pop.

And then I will wonder why I didn’t seek him out when I was mostly grown and home on college break. I figured I had a lot to thank him for, and it sure would have been nice to pull up a chair and watch those swallows and look into his eyes and answer to Abijail one more time.

Comments are closed.