rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno.- Juvenal (CE 82)
I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.- Ern Malley (1943)
On Monday night I looked out the bedroom window only to see a full-sized black swan wandering around our front yard. As you can see, she (or he) was quite imposing: raising both wings in frustration at not being able to find a way out through our fence - it does have exits, but these were probably not apparent in the semi-twilight - it seemed to dwarf everything around it.
So what you do when you see a black swan? Curiously enough, the question had arisen before, many years ago, when two of them landed on the roof of our garage, and sat there, apparently exhausted, for hours. My father got very agitated and rang the zoo and various other people, none of whom had anything useful to suggest. Eventually they just flew away.
The same thing happened on this occasion. The last time we saw it, the swan was making itself a nest in the hydrangeas. When I looked out later that night, it seemed to have disappeared. Certainly it was gone by next morning, leaving no signs of its presence beyond this picture. I don't think it particularly appreciated the flash photography (you can actually see the whites of its eyes), but we didn't have the courage to go out and try to chivvy it away - they can apparently break your arm with a single blow from their beaks!
Some strange things have been happening around the place lately. A couple of weeks ago a large black painting fell down in the middle of the night. That wasn't so surprising in itself, as the string it was hung on probably wasn't strong enough for its weight. But what was odd was the strange set of hairline scratches in the oil paint at the upper left-hand corner.
There's no obvious way these could have been caused by the fall (it was still upright when we went to check it), and they certainly weren't there when it was hung. It's hard to imagine what could have caused them. Thick oil paint is fairly resistant, and you'd have to press your fingernails on it pretty hard to get anything resembling that effect. It looks more like a set of pins have been dragged across it.
Then there was the plastic soapholder. This used to have a magnet so it could hold up a piece of soap with a metal circlet embedded in it. We don't really use it anymore, so it came as a bit of a surprise to find the front of it broken off and lying in the middle of the bathroom floor. Neither of us could remember touching it, letting alone knocking bits off it, and it's too high off the ground to be reached by a cat.
A week or so later the same piece of plastic (which Bronwyn had binned in the meantime) was found in the middle of the same bit of floor. Did someone dig through the rubbish, extract it, and plant it back where it had been? If so, why? With what conceivable motive?
So, all in all, the black swan seemed like the last straw.
But what, you may be asking, is the emblematic significance of black swans? Traditionally, of course, they represented something impossible (the first-century Latin satirist Juvenal speaks - in the line quoted above - of something resembling "a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan" - in other words, something so rare as to be non-existent). A black swan stood for a contradiction in terms. Until, that is, they were actually first sighted by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh in Australia in 1697.
As a totem animal, the website Wildspeak explains that the black swan:
will only appear when right and appropriate, and cannot be forced to visit you, commune with you, or share messages with you. Black swan is a proud animal guide / energy to visit, and will not dignify those who do not respect it with its presence. It will often require offerings ...The wikipedia page "Black Swan Theory" sees it somewhat differently:
Black swan can be a clear communicator, and will often 'converse' with those who visit it. It can be a stern teacher, has a very strong spirit, and can be a persistent guide (i.e. one that doesn't just appear once and disappears, but sticks around sometimes for many decades). In journeying, swans are often found on islands in the middle of lakes, and using this as a starting point for a visualising (i.e. crossing such a lake to the island) can be very helpful.
The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.In other words, the actual discovery of black swans after they had been assumed for so long to be impossible can be seen as a model for any such rewriting of history after the event.
So what is the significance of this black swan, and the - possibly related - strange and unsettling events which have accompanied it? "Black swans indicate deep mysteries within us that are longing to be set free to express themselves creatively," argues the astrology site "What's Your Sign?"
Then again, maybe it just got lost on its way to Lake Pupuke.
In any case, it was - to be honest - quite an awe-inspiring encounter. We await further developments with interest, mixed with a little apprehension ...
Black Swan (2010)