The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, October 01, 2016


BTW – A swift moment in time
There are few safe circular walks left in our part of East Java where the vista was once paddy stretching to the Bromo-Semeru Massif.
As traffic thickens, commuters hit the highways before sun-up.  This used to be a peaceful period when a sidewalk stroll was uncontested by motorbikes, a time to smell the flowers. No longer; the blooms are now dust-coated and sad.
Demolition of buildings for a toll road has turned a favorite tree-lined avenue into a disaster zone. Mark off another opportunity for exercise which doesn’t involve fingers on a keyboard.
Seeking contact with nature in retreat we found a discarded canal cut alongside the Kwansan River with just a trodden track on the bank above grubby water.  It surely flows because the plastic trash, floating like icebergs, slide slowly downstream.
Far from pristine, but it did have a plantation of tall trees, low scrub and thick weeds – mostly runaways from dumped garden cuttings and not all indigenous.
Yet even here where the path is narrow and slippery, the two-wheel hordes have found a short cut.  As some heavy military men have their villas alongside the canal we’re hoping they’ll halt the invasion.
If the Army wants to put its boots into regional domestic issues, here’s an opportunity. No action by wong cilek, the ordinary folk, is likely to have an impact on curbing the unruly.
Despite the carbon monoxide, the garbage and noise, the wild breaks through in surprising ways.
One such precious moment came when humidity, light, wind and other climatic factors married to produce an eruption of flying ants on the canal bank.
Millions of eggs were hatching in the roots of long grasses.  The insects then used the stems as vertical runways to launch themselves on their brief flight to set new colonies.
But their intentions were thwarted even while my wife and I pondered this small miracle of an ant airport, for out of the grey swooped a squadron of swifts.  Hurtling just above head height yet too fast to touch, they gorged themselves on the rising harvest.
How did they know the ants were there?
British academic, lawyer and veterinarian Charles Foster in his book Being a Beast recounts attempts to understand wild creatures by living among them. 
His subjects included swifts.  To get on their flightpath he used a paraglider but failed to match their speed or agility. Every hour each bird collected around 5,000 insects - more than one a second.
Swifts are nature’s Top Guns in level flight, occasionally recorded above 100 kph, though usually cruising at around half that speed.
“When it comes to swifts,” Foster wrote, “all poetry fails.”  Because he’s a masterly wordsmith and polymath I’ll not stain this page with inapt metaphors other than to say the term ‘dogfight’ to describe aerial combat is inappropriate.
Even if canines could get airborne they’d be out manoeuvred by the apodidae family with about 75 separate species.  The Greek term means ‘footless’ because the ancients thought swifts never rested.
The ones breakfasting on the flying ants were probably cave swiftlets known as layang-layang or walet in Java, Unlike local lapwings they’ve learned the one-word lesson of survival – adapt.
So swifts no longer breed exclusively in caves and hollow trees, but build their nests in man-made structures, like bridges and buildings, which is handy as this part of Indonesia has an abundance. 
The species that build edible nests using spittle are welcomed to occupy houses where their presence is supposed to bring luck along with rupiah.
To encourage swift tourism entrepreneurs have erected windowless stonewall sheds with small holes under the eaves.  The fearless birds hurtle through the gaps using echolocation.
We watched the astonishing feeding frenzy till hunger forced us home. Next day insects and swifts had vanished.  Though not the motorbikes and heavy machinery juggernauting its way through our once semi-rural suburb.
Ants are a pest in the house but we’ll never spray again, just to ensure a return of that swift and magic morning. 
(First published in J Plus -The Jakarta Post 1 October 2016)

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