Chimney Swifts at Riverside Christian Church

by Tim Gilmore, 11/25/2012


Having written a masterpiece I’d never shown, having found my physical soul and knifed it out onto a page, I looked into methods of publication.

I loved you so much that I loved you a thousand years ago and six thousand miles away. So what method of publication could ever be suitable?

Putting it in a bottle to toss into the ocean or sending it into the sky in a balloon are options that I’m ashamed to say possessed me.

But there are stranger ways that a message makes its way across time and geography and culture.

This morning, I watered my cucumbers and watched the strange eddies that flowed through the curls of the water hose and wondered where those forces and molecules and patterns were 623 years ago.

[i.e.] Did the Ark of the Covenant contain the stone tablets of the Ten Commandents, Aaron’s Rod, and a jar of manna from Heaven when tribesmen carried it across Middle Eastern deserts thousands of years ago? Did any man who touched the ark instantly die? And is it the ark that armed sentries guard outside the Chapel of the Tablet in the ancient Ethiopian city of Axum?

And if the Ark of the Covenant didn’t travel these distances and times, much more importantly and romantically, how did the stories?

If I were a bird, I’d still be captive to eddies and times and currents and air streams and shifting weather patterns and shifting populations and their differing habits of garbage and jets of new heat through old cold and new wind tunnels through canyons of skyscrapers and cross-planetary delivery systems that bring African sands and minerals from the Sahara to the depths of the Amazon rain forests and ghostly meteorological ramifications of unimagined social consequences from an urban legend filtered across the planet today from the earth’s very first cities.

So I tie my masterpiece—and I promise it’s so much better than any poem or story or novel of mine you might ever have happened once to see—to the talon of a chimney swift.


And in November, when the swifts return to Riverside Christian Church on their Jacksonville layover between Ontario and Peru, these whirling wheels of small birds converge on the corner of Riverside Avenue and Cherry Street, as they have for close to a century.

Before architects designed the original church structure, and later the three-story pseudo-Gothic brick tower, the swifts perhaps claimed some “chimney” not a chimney on their way south. We call them “chimney swifts,” as though they didn’t evolve and exist tens of thousands of years before people built them chimneys.

Newspaper articles from the 1930s mention the birds’ stopover in the tall tower of the Riverside church, but birds always know far more than people’s paltry stories through newspapers and weblinks.

It takes a great bird migration to get me to church these days. What birds have known how to do, instinctually and without emotion or intellect, for however many tens of thousands of years, strikes my spirit more deeply and primordially than politicized stories about martyrs whom I’m sorry ever suffered.

The birds’ use of a church seems beautifully ignorant and more truly true. In North Florida’s cool but warm November mornings, the swifts rise from the belltower and scatter across Riverside and the city of Jacksonville.

When the sun returns to the level of the earth, so do the swifts. They dart through the dark, consuming this summer swamp’s insects in the air.

The swifts confirm their name in the purple dusk, in some years hundreds of birds, but in other years thousands.

This one small moment on one street corner, we watch dusk descend, when the thickening cloud of swifts encircles the brick chimney, thicker and thicker, tighter together, until finally the mass of birds decreases, and all that’s left is the tower.

Still, the dozens of people who spill across the church lawn stare up at the silent tower and wonder, with deep awe that knows not what it questions, just what stories and understandings exist in the countless swifts that move up and down this continent and coast across hundreds or thousands of years.


From and within such primitive algorithms in the sky, I trust the odds. The one swift’s talon will place in your hands everything beautiful I should have done and said with my whole life, and you will love me forever.