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The Trumpet of the Swan

Storybook creatures and the revival of a species

by Kim Todd

Published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion magazine




WHEN I WAS FIVE and my sister was two, my father started to lose his balance. He stumbled down the sidewalk, tripped up the stairs. Clumsiness became extreme. Newspapers were reporting that children who had radiation to reduce their tonsils were developing thyroid cancer as adults. He went in for a thyroid examination, only to have the doctor note his swaying and order a CT scan of his head instead. It showed a tumor on his brain stem. Surgery removed the growth but left him deaf in one ear, a better outcome than expected. Then my mother reminded him to go back for the thyroid test, and he ended up having an operation for thyroid cancer. By the time he healed from that, I was seven.

During his recovery, he read me The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White—the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute, unable to make the honking cry that marks his species. As a fluffy gray cygnet in Canada, Louis doesn’t mind, but when he migrates to the Red Rock Lakes in Montana, he finds he is unable to woo a mate. In a dramatic scene of broken glass and a fainting salesgirl, his father steals a trumpet from a music store in Billings to give his son a voice. Anxious to pay off the debt, Louis gets a series of gigs playing trumpet at a camp in Ontario, leading the Swan Boat in the Boston Public Garden, and performing jazz in a Philadelphia night club.

White waded fearlessly into the lives of animals, and the book pulled me in with its wildness. Though critics say Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web are more polished, the characters of those novels inhabit our world: Stuart lives in Manhattan with human parents; Wilbur needs the farmer to fill the slop trough. But The Trumpet of the Swan reaches far beyond the barnyard. The largest swans on Earth, with a wingspan reaching eight feet, so graceful, so strong, so scorning of human attention, the trumpeters occupy a universe that brushes only briefly against our own. The book’s second chapter has no people at all, just frogs, red-winged blackbirds, skunks, chickadees, and two swans building a nest at the cusp of spring, when “every creature knew that a better, easier time was at hand.”

In 1977, the summer after my father’s second operation, the family left California for a driving tour of the West. We stopped to visit family friends in Montana and Colorado. Whether my father felt finally well enough to visit, or because he felt ill enough that he might not have another chance, I don’t know. When asked, he just said, “We decided we better go see everybody.”

And between camping and fishing and visiting, we took a 250-mile detour to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to see the swans because, as my mother said, “You and your father read that book.” What did I expect? Maybe to watch a cygnet gobble pond weeds. Maybe to hear the famous call. Maybe to be hauled out of my daily life on powerful wings. The box of photos is lost, memories only scraps. Of the trip, my father remembers a rusty-backed sandhill crane. My mother remembers the swans as fenced off and far away. Much closer were the stinging insects that sought out every inch of flesh. “I was hysterical, running into the tent, zipping it closed,” she says, adding, “It was unbelievably isolated except for all of the ornithologists.”

I remember only a small, brown mouse that ran over the trail. The color of earth, it stopped right at my feet, wary too late. Even so still, it was all movement, fur fluttering along its sides as it breathed, blood pounding through ears no bigger than my pinky fingernail. Could I touch it? Then it skittered away, taking shelter in sticks and dead leaves.

MY FATHER’S PARTIAL DEAFNESS gave him a sense of remove, like he was half in another world already. All the days in the hospital, future uncertain, enhanced his distance. In my dreams, he often just walked away. But reading me to sleep, he fully inhabited the tales of wily sailors and the fantasy birds that flocked to them. In The Arabian Nights, Sinbad encounters rocs, monstrous eagles that blot out the sun and feed on snakes. In The Odyssey, goddesses move like birds, rushing upward, breaking the ocean surface, diving like gulls. He once told me if he could be anyone, it would be Odysseus, but most of the time we didn’t talk beyond the unfolding story. A year or so ago, back in California for a visit, I found all the books my father read me on a shelf in my childhood bedroom. I piled them up and took them home.

The thirty-year-old paperback of The Trumpet of the Swan was among them. Battered and stained, the cover showed a black-haired boy waiting breathlessly on a log as a cygnet pulls on his shoelace. Pages fanned out at the bottom where the binding was ripped away. I turned them carefully so the old glue didn’t give up its hold.

Stories heard in childhood sink deep. Each word falls like a stone to the muck at the bottom of the mind, unimpeded by currents of distraction or critical distinctions. Characters and plots, with all their turns and complexities, become part of the architecture of the brain itself, as synapses leap to accommodate them.

To meet each image, all these years later, was to come across an unexpected reflection. The vixen in her den, dreaming of her kits. Sam, the boy who helps Louis throughout—his calm competence and the way he moves through the woods, “putting one foot in front of the other and making very little noise.” (The thud of my first-grade adoration for Sam rushed back, the way I copied his walk and echoed his journal style.) The young swans racing over the water surface, feeling for their wings. “Ko-hoh,” the call of a mated pair as they arrive at their Canada breeding grounds.

As I closed the book, it seemed I had been chasing those swans all my life, though I’d long ago forgotten what I was pursuing. When I became an adult, I’d moved to Montana as soon as possible. I wrote natural history for a living. I had an abiding faith that quiet and observant was the way to be. But I’d never caught a glimpse of the actual birds. I wanted to go back, to retrace White’s steps through the Red Rock Lakes. Not at all a birder in a field-guide, life-list kind of way, I would borrow a spotting scope, ignore unscripted mice, and see the real swans this time. 

IT’S DUSK WHEN I COME TO MONIDA, a tiny collection of boarded-up buildings at exit 0 on the Montana-Idaho border. A former cowboy town once raging with saloons, it now flaunts only faded paint on abandoned storefronts, decades-old offerings of REPAIR and OIL and ICE CREAM. Husks of buildings hunch in wind-whipped grass. There’s a pay phone, like a stunted pine, if anyone needs to make a call to say she’s arrived at this remote outpost.

To get to Red Rock Lakes, one turns at Monida and drives thirty miles on a dirt road that grows increasingly pitted. As the car bumps and shudders in the ruts, frightening pronghorn lingering by the fence line, a wide flat valley falls away to the north. The town of Lakeview rises to one side—a few unlit cabins, the refuge headquarters—and fades back into the marsh.

At Upper Red Rock Lake, I pitch the tent in the dark, unpack my sleeping bag, my flashlight, and the evening’s reading. Quiet spreads, and is beat back by squeaking nylon, rustling pages. The national wildlife refuge brochure warns that trumpeters can be hard to find. Many nest north of Yellowstone these days, and at Red Rock Lakes they build in the most out-of-the-way places. I have copies of White’s letters, a new edition published in 2006, and his biography, written by Scott Elledge.

The whole life is there, his driving through the West in a Model T in his twenties, working for The New Yorker, living on a Maine farm, but not much about trumpeters until this sentence in a letter about the recently published The Trumpet of the Swan: “[It] took a lot of gall to write it, as I have never in my life laid eyes on a Trumpeter Swan, either in or out of captivity.” He never visited the Red Rock Lakes either.

In a letter dated February 17, 1969, White described the months spent drafting the manuscript as “a long, cold, grim winter.” His wife, Katharine, had heart trouble and severe osteoporosis that weakened her spine. She could barely walk. As he picked through trumpeter-swan life histories, a different kind of flock was on his mind—the nurses crowding his house to tend her. Ill himself and in his seventies, he bluntly wrote a colleague that he hoped his third children’s book—Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little had both been bestsellers—would pay for it all.

Regret seeps in as I read this, a sadness that I didn’t leave the author and his backstory alone. It is mixed with a twinge of betrayal that he didn’t see any of the swan life he described. The feeling is unjust. The Trumpet of the Swan is a children’s story, after all. Louis can spell “catastrophe” and eats watercress sandwiches at The Ritz. But still. Isn’t first-hand observation the cornerstone of writing and natural history? E. B. White’s books taught me so.

To fuel his research, White asked an old friend, Howard Cushman, to scout out the Philadelphia Zoo and its captive trumpeter swans. White knew, maybe from a newspaper article, that in 1965 five trumpeter cygnets had hatched at the zoo. He asked Cushman to take photographs and describe Bird Lake. He also told his friend to look for jazz nightclubs, though he wouldn’t tell him why.

White paged through reports by Edward Howe Forbush, a naturalist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Wilston Banko, a longtime manager of the Red Rock Lakes Refuge. Reaching farther back, he read John James Audubon’s missives from a time of abundance. Audubon drew with trumpeter-swan quills, tough feathers he liked for their strength and flexibility. He kept a wounded swan captive for two years. It ate bread from his wife’s hand and harassed his turkey, dogs, and children before escaping. He canoed with Shawnee hunters who took fifty in one day, and watched flocks of swans resting on a frozen Mississippi River, eyeing the wolves creeping up, letting them get temptingly close, before leaping into the air. In Audubon’s painting of the trumpeter, the body is a solid white mass against the robin’s-egg blue of lake and sky. The eye is all intensity as it peers down at some irritant in the water, a portrait of peace anchored by a glare.

Despite these secondhand accounts, White had a clear notion of his subject. When Cushman reported that the trumpeting of the swan was less than spectacular, White refused to believe it. “Your brief ‘yarp’ was probably a polite acknowledgment of tossed peanuts,” he wrote back, saying he would go with the glorious noise described by Audubon and others. The sound recorded by Banko, who attributes its description to Forbush, who cites E. S. Cameron as saying it was the Kootenai name for the swan. The call White heard so clearly: ko-hoh.

Swans may have been on White’s mind because the country was surging with optimism for an animal once given up as extinct. Nineteenth-century hunters had targeted the big flashy birds. The Hudson Bay Company offered hundreds of swan skins to the London market, mostly from trumpeters. Swans’ down lined wool slippers and fluttered in feather boas. Collectors wanted eggs. Buyers sought live swans for menageries.

In an 1895 photograph taken near Red Rock Lakes, a boy holds a rifle slung over his arm. Soft bodies of waterfowl are lined up at his feet and along the base of the rough log cabin behind him; they dangle from nails on the cabin wall, lie settled on a windowsill as if asleep. A trumpeter swan hangs by its head, the weight of its body pulling the neck full length, wings slightly spread. Settlers at the Red Rock Lakes earned fifty dollars per swan caught, crated, and shipped off to zoos and private collections.

By the early decades of the twentieth century, the disappearance of trumpeters seemed a foregone conclusion, despite the fact that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to hunt them. In his 1925 Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, Forbush wrote feelingly about trumpeters “traversing a continent on wings of the wind, their long lines glistening like silver in the bright sunlight,” but then reports, matter-of-factly, “The Trumpeter is a valuable bird and apparently harmless, but doomed.” By 1935, only seventy-eight breeding trumpeter swans showed up in a census of the entire United States, most living near Red Rock Lakes. That year, the government designated forty thousand acres of southern Montana marsh as a national wildlife refuge.

To everyone’s surprise, the combination of a refuge and a hunting ban worked. In 1963, Audubon magazine printed an article entitled “Long Fight to Save the Trumpeter Swan.” Not long afterward, Biological Conservation ran the story “The Trumpeter Swan, Olor buccinator: A Conservation Success and Its Lessons.” A population of thousands was discovered in Alaska. By the late 1970s, almost four thousand trumpeter swans lived in North America. This victory is the foundation of The Trumpet of the Swan, written just as the tide was turning in the species’ favor.

These days, transplanted and captive-raised trumpeters anchor a Midwest population of 4,600 at last count. Farther north, 25,000 breed in Alaska, and 4,700 more live in Canada, some of which fly south to the Red Rock Lakes for the winter.

THE NEXT MORNING, amid a cacophony of high reedy tweets, chains of honks, clonks of woodpeckers against dead aspen, a flock of white birds floats near the western edge of Upper Red Rock Lake. But the scope reveals white pelicans, dipping grand beaks into the water.

It’s a heady time of year. Many birds trail lines of hatchlings. A young man from Butte drives up in a truck with a horse trailer, leans his head out the window to chat about his ride into the mountains, telling how he always comes down in June to look at the elk and moose that have dropped their young in the stands of aspen clustered near the creeks.

The lakes rest like shards of thin slate, scattered in the broad plain between the Centennial Mountains and the Gravelly Range. The shallow waters are infested with leeches, riddled with sedges, lined with rotting plants slow to decay in the cold. Mosquitoes and horseflies dart over the surface, seeking a blood meal. The town of Paradise is to the north and west, at the junction of the Flathead and Clark Fork rivers, and Eden sits among the coulees and buttes in the center of the state, but for a trumpeter swan, the Red Rock Lakes are heaven. The lakes and their surrounding marshes are so attractive, in fact, that some trumpeters don’t ever leave. Instead of migrating, they linger all winter at the refuge, where warm springs keep ponds ice free. In the early days of the refuge, people scattered grain in the cold months, making a trip south even less attractive.

Today, the “tri-state trumpeters” (which include the Red Rock Lake birds) number around five hundred, and some worry that one harsh winter or virulent disease could dispatch them all. They are the only group inhabiting their original breeding grounds in the lower 48. They are not captive-bred. They have not been relocated or reintroduced. They are tied to these lakes, perhaps even on a genetic level, in a way that a bird brought from Canada to the Midwest and set free is not.

For decades, biologists have been trying to get these malingerers to migrate to warmer climates in Utah, Oregon, southern Idaho—to re-create either a genetic impulse lost when the population narrowed to less than a hundred, or migratory knowledge lost when parents were shot as they flew into hostile territory. Managers have tried scaring birds off the lakes, or boxing them up and shipping them away as the snow starts to fall. On the East Coast, they’ve experimented with imprinting young trumpeters on an ultralight plane and flying it south.

All this effort is complicated by the fact that Utah has long had a hunting season for tundra swans, which look like trumpeters but are smaller. If you dissect a dead tundra swan, its esophagus has one less kink, so it whistles rather than trumpets. More recently, the state opened a limited season on trumpeter swans as well. So sometimes, when a swan heads south, it is shot, all that work of prodding it into flight wasted.

I walk up the dusty road to a small pond, aware of my parents’ indulgence, coming all the way out here with two young children because one loved a certain book. My father is seventy-four now, older than White when he wrote The Trumpet of the Swan. His shock of white hair is thick and churned by cowlicks. The single, small, gold-hoop earring he acquired days after retiring as an electrical engineer gives him the look of a weathered pirate. As he’s grown older, the deafness has grown more pronounced, but face to face, in a quiet room, we might talk. He’ll ask me what I’m reading. If we go look for birds now, they are closer to my parents’ home: the snowy plovers my mother monitors for the National Park Service. They huddle behind the driftwood and seaweed and trash that washes up on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the plovers are claiming a strip of sand bordered by a highway.

Not far from Upper Red Rock Lake, a pond is staked off by signs warning viewers not to come closer as swans will abandon their nests—a mess of roots and sedges likely built on top of a muskrat lodge—at the slightest human provocation. White dots bob on the surface. A moment to set up the tripod and adjust the focus, and there they are: two adults and, right up against their chests, five cygnets.

There is a whiff of the nineteenth century in the perfect S curve of their necks, the way they slip over the water. (In The Trumpet of the Swan, Louis’s father admires his own smooth movements, saying, “Here I glide, swanlike,” and his mother replies, “Of course you glide like a swan. . . . How else could you glide? You couldn’t glide like a moose, could you?”) As one swan tips to pull pond weeds from the bottom, the huge sphere of torso and wings seems to require a frame of bustles, hoops, and stays. When it rights itself, the swan looks like a picture painted on the side of a teacup.

Here, from the shore, observation and imagination feed one another. White, the writer, gathered details from Banko, the refuge manager, who cited Audubon, the artist, whose paintings bred a nationwide passion for native birds. The swans through the scope are, at the same time, assemblies of DNA and meat and blood and instinct, as well as the mythical creatures hatched by White’s pen and fledged by my father’s voice, two sick men, talking into life these bold birds that fought off extinction, summoning their fierceness and dreamy vitality.

On the pond, the heads of both birds flatten; necks turn into snakes about to strike. The male and female peer in every direction: the shrubby shoreline, the ducks paddling nearby, straight down the throat of the spotting scope. A coot pops up from underneath the water, an insolent splash in the middle of the knot of cygnets, scattering them like dandelion seeds. One swan spreads its wings, curves of muscle visible in the sleek chest, kicking up the water, half herding, half slapping, and chases the little bird away. The trumpeter fluffs its feathers, settles them back in place. The cygnets huddle around. They go back to gliding, swanlike.

I am glad to see them. 

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Kim Todd is the author of Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. She teaches creative writing at Penn State Erie.

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