[This is another one of my old columns from the Basler Zeitung on-line English Corner. It was published in August 2002, hence the summer theme.]
THE SKY OVER BASEL
Summer began for me this year on the last Thursday in April in Ettingen, when two swifts curved down out of the sky from behind an evergreen and then disappeared into the dusk, leaving behind the scree of their cries resonating in my ears and the rush of their flight as a trail in my eyes. The astronomers say summer is from June 20 to September 20, the meteorologists make their recordkeeping easier by moving summer forward to June 1 and ending it on August 31, but my summer runs from late April until early August, when Apus apus leaves for Africa — the "apusologist's summer," perhaps, or just a swift one.
The amount of time I spend looking at the sky for those three-plus months makes me a dangerous bicyclist. But I've been granted some extraordinary visions as a result. The route I most often ride — down Riehenstrasse to the Rhine — seems to be a good one for heavenly observations. One early morning a few days after my apusologist's summer began, I looked up from a red light at Schwarzwaldallee and saw four swans flying briskly across the crisp background of a cool, clear sky. They had formed half a V rather than a full one, but what made the sight so memorable was the little flock's leader: a Black Swan. The Black Swans at the Zoo and at the Erlenpark make them a relatively common sight for any parent of a small child crazy about animals, but this was still a striking vision.
The swans were gone before the light changed, so no one had to honk at me. I had similar good fortune, traffic-wise, when another vision ascended into the sky before my eyes in mid-July. This time I was so distracted while riding that I could have been a danger to other people on the road — luckily there weren't any — and I would not even have been able to blame it on a bird. As I again headed toward the Rhine on Riehenstrasse, a chest of drawers rose into the sky over Grossbasel and crossed the river toward me; it was hanging from a long cable attached to a helicopter. Perhaps this is a new service offered by Basel movers. "I hope they don't lose any of the clothes," I thought as the helicopter vanished toward Germany.
So it's not just birds that make me a dangerous bicyclist — though it's mostly birds. But don't worry, usually I get off my bicycle if I see something worth watching. A Gray Heron stopped me once last summer beside the Erlen canal; it was perched on the roof over one of the locks, offering a good chance to see a heron close up. I earned quite a few puzzled gazes from passing bicyclists by standing there for so long looking at what they might have thought was nothing, but a few of those who followed my gaze rewarded me with a smile of understanding as soon as they spotted the object of my attention. And when the Gray Heron itself flew away, it rewarded me for my patience, too: seconds after it rose above the trees and disappeared from sight, a Dipper (the German Wasseramsel, or "water blackbird") darted along the canal, a species I had never seen before.
Of course, there are enough birds in Basel (though not enough flying chests of drawers) to make me a dangerous bicyclist in other seasons besides summer. The huge hammering man sculpture at Aeschenplatz always earns an affectionate glance from me when I ride past, but one sunny but bitter-cold afternoon a few winters ago, it was a veritable horde of birds at the very top of the alley of trees between Aeschenplatz and the SBB station that made me stop. Passersby may again have wondered why I was staring and staring up at the trees, but the birds were far enough away that it was difficult to identify distinguishing features. Later consultation with a bird guide (and a more experienced birdwatching friend) revealed the birds to have been Fieldfares, a rare sighting for Basel: the cold had brought them down from higher altitudes, it seems.
The cold will not be back for quite a while still, but the apusologist's summer will soon be over: sometime shortly after this column goes on-line, the swifts will head south, and winter will be on its way, no matter how warm the rest of the meteorologist's or astronomer's summer is. The sky over Basel will seem empty, but the streets of Basel will be safer, as one bicyclist will no longer be distracted — or will at least be less distracted — by what's happening in the sky. Barring the appearance of a flying four-poster, of course.