An Australian swan arriving on an ancient chalk stream in the Chilterns in the UK is maybe not as mysterious as it seems. This particular bird escaped from the garden of the local Red Lion pub; there are white swans on a lake not far away but our swan did not join together with them to produce grey swans or eat up all the weed. In fact nothing changed because this exotic black swan flew onto this particular stretch of blue water. The premise of the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was that the “discovery” of black swans in Australia by Europeans was an event that triggered a
different way of thinking by opening peoples minds to other possibilities.
When something becomes apparent, suddenly becomes known, things are different: swans are not only white. Taleb discusses world changing knowledge, that was present all the time, and is suddenly thrust in front of people to create a game changer. However the knowledge that there were black swans on the other side of the planet changed nothing in Europe in the 19th, 20th or 21st centuries, so far. The majority of chalk streams in the world flow in the UK, they are shallow, gin clear and fast, the one where this black swan chose to land is only 17 miles long and has a rich natural history. In a very old nearby church where there are frescos remaining from the middle ages, you can still see a picture of a salmon, which
would have had to swim a mighty long way from the sea to breed in this quiet spot.
Nowadays there are a few, well guarded wild brown trout, dace, grayling and sticklebacks and those of us who live on the river keep their locations close. As all swans eat the same things: aquatic vegetation, molluscs, small fish, frogs and worms, a black swan or two amongst the white swans make very little difference to the food supply.
In the town downstream from the swan the people experienced water that was so polluted that it was undrinkable throughout most of its history; everyone, children included, drank beer instead. Three breweries supplied these thirsty people. Sixty years ago there were huge grey water rats in the river, even though the outside sewerage and pig slaughtering facilities running directly into the water had been pulled down years ago. The river still felt unclean in the town, and a cheap perfume factory near the church discharged a sickly fragrance into the water that
gave an unwholesome, unnatural aspect to the meandering stream. Water voles, tadpoles, leeches and occasional kingfishers were the water life fifty
years ago; now there is a surfeit of big grey herons, pied wagtails and super exotic blow-in cattle egrets, birds that have nearly pecked the river clean of fish, the surface free of insects and the banks clean of frogs. Nothing to do with black swans, which have changed nothing on this river.
The area where the town has stood for over a thousand years has old Roman remains, more like camps than villas, going back 2000 years. It’s an ancient human site in a fertile, well watered valley where the swans were always white. There has been a Royal Charter Fair in the town for two days in September every year since 1200, granted when all the swans were white, nothing has changed since black
swans arrived in town.
As The Queen owns all the unmarked mute white swans in the Uk, does this make the black swan a republican? A free swan? Is this a sign of change?