Swans bring us together. For 28 years in Stratford, Ont., swans have paraded through the streets on the first weekend of April, waddling from their winter pens to the banks of the Avon River. This is the swans’ moment. It is ours, too.
After moving to the community last year, I was encouraged to take in the spring spectacle. I smiled quietly to myself at first. For many years, I lived near Wiarton, Ont., where each winter, Willie would make his prediction on Groundhog Day. It was a tongue-in-cheek event that brought a chuckle to those who would gather on Feb. 2 in the shadow and the light. But swans are no groundhog, I would quickly discover.
I immediately noticed the throngs of people lining the river on this bright, beautiful early April day. They had staked out their places, awaiting the bagpipes to announce the beginning of the parade, when the swans are released from the enclosures that keep them safe in the winter months.
The swans swaggered through the middle of the street in parade formation while several thousand people looked on. The crowd acted as the edges of a pathway, guiding the swans to the river, their mating grounds and home for the spring.
As they made their way down to the water to embark upon a new season, these creatures captured the imagination of those gathered. What would they do? Where would they go?
For good reason, Stratford loves its swans. The birds have been mating and breeding along these shores of the Avon since 1918, when a local resident released a pair of swans into the river, giving them as a gift to the city. Time passed, and their numbers grew. In 1967, Queen Elizabeth gave Canada a gift of a royal herd, ancestors of some of the current swans. Today, anywhere from a dozen to two dozen swans grace the river of this thespian city.
Watching thousands of people congregate that afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder what spring does for us. We wait for the moment when we can burst open our doors and gather together once again. Winters are long in these parts, and longer still in most of the rest of the country. For Stratford folks, the swan parade is a rite of passage, a ritual to announce the new season has begun.
People lingered along the water, catching up with others they hadn’t seen for some time and making new acquaintances. They paused together, engaging one another as a community. Swans make that happen. They connect us to something larger and longer than me, here and now. An offspring of another time. A hope for an unknown future.
Quiet applause rippled through the crowd as the swans entered the water, growing to a crescendo when a few of them spread their wings, testing their flight. It was a grateful acknowledgment of what is possible, a celebration of the familiar and the yet to be. We look for that here in Stratford. We look for that around the world.
It is a parade of hope, dipping us into the waters of life.
This story first appeared in The Observer’s April 2018 edition with the title “Birds of a feather.”