St. Joseph’s Day came and went. Not as big a celebration day as St. Patrick’s; but important, nonetheless, to fathers, carpenters, Sicilians, and fava bean farmers. Joseph was the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, making him stepfather to Jesus. He was a carpenter, and tradition says he saved Sicilians from starvation during a famine in the Middle Ages by preserving the humble fava bean, which until then had been used as animal fodder. Where this day is celebrated, feasts are placed upon an altar replete with flowers, limes, candles, wine, fava beans, cakes, breads and cookies. Because St. Joseph’s Day traditionally occurs during Lent, the foods are meatless, and prepared with breadcrumbs representing sawdust, since Joseph was a carpenter. It is a family sort of celebration. A father, hard worker, and provider; all good reasons to celebrate.
But there is more celebration on this particular day, and it has held my attention for years. When I was a child, I remember hearing my parents talk about the little bird miracle each spring; swallows flew thousands of miles to nest in a mission in Southern California, and they arrived every year on St. Joseph Day. I loved the idea of a flock of birds not only flying for thousands of miles, but to arrive on the same day each year definitely sounded like a miracle to me. Seriously, birds have brains about the size of pinto beans or smaller, so this had to be something greater than its capacity to plan and execute a summer vacation.
All the years I expectantly spent waiting, some 300 miles away, to hear the swallows had returned to San Juan Capistrano were culminated in the early 1970’s when, grown and married, I moved from my little valley home to Orange County. It was a daily struggle to live in that metropolitan area, because I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a city person. I did not care how glamorous and affluent those people believed they were; underneath the makeup, and designer clothes, outside of the fast foreign cars and over-sized houses on postage stamp sized lots, they were people just like everyone else, only they seemed to have forgotten genuine was better than affected, and sincerity always trumped sarcasm. I lived there for three years, and fought hammer and tong every single day to stay positive and maintain joy in those things I valued.
During that time it helped that I found a favorite place; one that provided comfort, and I could frequent regularly. The mission at San Juan Capistrano. The very same place I had dreamed about as a child, and whose bird miracle I monitored every spring. I finally saw, in person, the cliff swallows who did indeed return there every year on St. Joseph’s Day. It was a beautiful, peaceful island of tranquility in a sea of urban pandemonium.
When I visited there, I could be refreshed and renewed just by walking through the grounds. It was lovely. And sometimes funny. I recall one couple who clearly were from a place that did not teach about California missions year after year in public school, because Mrs. Not From California, brochure clasped firmly in one hand, grasped Mr. Not From California with her other, and pulled him by his elbow to a serene corner of a flowered garden, where a statue of Junipero Serra stood, and told him to look at the statue of Father Juniper Sierra. I had been meandering through the gardens, all contemplative and happy, and stopped in my tracks as I heard her pronounce his name, and then go on about how he was just like the priest in the Lewis Lamer book she was reading. What? Was she serious? Juniper Sierra, as in shrubs and mountains? Lewis Lamer, as in Louis L’Amour? I only stared for a moment, and then walked on, fully aware the life, times, and especially the name of the Spanish missionary who established the first U.S. mission in 1769 , and built eight more California missions during the next thirteen years were not necessarily educational priorities for people from other states. But I was puzzled why she mangled poor Mr. L’Amour’s name so dreadfully. He had sold millions of books, nineteen of which, at the time, had been made into movies, and he had a postage stamp, for goodness sake. Yes, definitely puzzled.
After those three years in Orange County, I left for the Pacific Northwest, and found the place where I am most comfortable; rain, pine trees, jeans, flannel shirts, and Xtratuf boots. But, in all these years since leaving, I have never stopped checking in on the swallows, and their annual 6000 mile migration from Argentina to Southern California. Sadly, time and progress proved an unfortunate pair of evil-doers for the cliff swallow and its nesting in San Juan Capistrano, because their numbers visiting the mission dwindled over the years, until 2009, when it seems they stopped coming altogether.
In my efforts to find where they had gone, it appears building around the area, with increases in population, had ruined the swallows food supply by growth activities taking over the wetlands and riverbeds. I do not know what was triggered in the birds’ tiny little brains, but something went off, and they decided to chuck the San Juan Capistrano digs for an inland spot called Chino Hills; a relatively new city situated in the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County, bordered by Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside Counties. A lovely, mostly rural area, with rolling hills, and far fewer human inhabitants. Smart birds.
In the meantime, life and celebration go on year after year at San Juan Capistrano with Mariachi bands, parades, festivities, ringing of mission bells, and food; all to welcome back cliff swallows who said enough is enough, and on their return flight from Argentina, turned right at Laguna Beach, left at Trabuco Canyon, and flew north to a better more hospitable place for building their little mud nests.
And even though it has been five years since they stopped stopping in, and the annual celebration continues without birds, there is yet an even more interesting activity occurring that gives one pause. To attract the cliff swallows back to the mission, an Oklahoma ornithologist had the idea of playing recordings of their mating song from speakers hidden in one of the mission gardens. Behind the statue of Father Junipero Serra. Really. Picture it; Father Junipero Serra sings love songs to cliff swallows. Nightly. No cover charge.
This idea did not work, and I am not surprised. After all, these feathered wonders fly from Argentina to southern California, build clever little mud nests, mate, and return to their winter home in South America every year right on schedule, no human assistance needed. They gave hundreds of years to San Juan Capistrano, and then, like any reasonable individual, parent, spouse, homeowner, or member of civilized society realized they could be safer and happier in a different locale. I get it. The only difference is I wear Xtratufs and they do not.