-By John Armor
Three miles south of Highlands, North Carolina, the road to Dillard, Georgia, goes through a golf course. It is not just any golf course. It is the one that the great Bobby Jones designed just before he created his masterpiece at Augusta.
Jones had a personal stake in the Highlands Country Club course. He built his retirement home straight across the crescent-shaped lake which surrounds the 18th green, from the flag. Like the rest of the course, the 18th is a demanding hole, a chip across the lake to a teacup of a green that slopes away to all sides so approach shots that are only slightly off, “get wet” as the golfers say.
The whole course is demanding. There is water on 14 of its 18 holes. And in the summer when the rhododendrons are in bloom and dropping their large, white petals, it is a fruitless enterprise even to attempt to find a ball that has strayed from the fairway.
But this story is not about the golf course. It is about the swans that lived on that lake for at least ten years. The perfect picture, which I have preserved only in my mind, not on film, is at the close of the day. The dying sun turns the perfect grass into a glowing, emerald green. It white-washes the wooden front of Jones’ former home. And if the timing is just right, it catches the two swans swimming in tandem, across a lake as still as glass, behind the green and in front of Jones’ house.
Swans are one of the rarities in the animal kingdom. They mate for life, as did these two. Unlike other birds, where the male is bright and showy and the female dull and camouflaged, the hen and the drake among swans are seemingly identical. I’m sure they knew the difference, but to my untrained eye they were the same,
It was a cob and a pen for sure, because about three years ago they had a clutch of cygnets, who swam with them as they grew that summer. Then in the fall, the children were gone.
On the water, up on the grass, near or in the swan house that was their shelter beyond the low stone bridge across a neck in the lake – anywhere in their small world – the swans were usually together as a pair.
Then, two weeks ago as we drove through the golf course every day on the way to town for the mail, we saw only one swan. For five days, we saw just one. So we stopped at the Club’s security office next to the lake, and asked whether anything had happened to the other swan.
It had. One swan had gotten sick and died, of botulism the guard guessed, from something eaten from the bottom of the shallow lake. So, now there is just one swan, a lonely gentleman whose lady has died. Because we cannot tell who died, and who is left behind, I’m sure my lady love would write that the gentleman died, and the lady swan lives on.
When couples are mated for life and one dies, often the other dies soon after, having little reason to go on. It is children, grandchildren, friends, professions and avocations which keep the survivors in such families continuing on. So, how is it with this one swan?
He has no descendants, no friends, no pastimes. He does have his memories of his mate. He must have that, or else how could swans mate for life?
Now, he spends very little time in the water. Most times, he is up on the grassy hillside below the tee of the 18th hole. Does he stay out of the water because he remembers the hours without number when he swam there with her? Does he stay on that hillside perhaps because that is where she died?
There are few things more elegant, evocative and inspiring, than two swans swimming on a still lake, almost always within touching distance of each other.
For the reverse of all the same reasons, there are few things sadder than one swan a-swimming, on a glassy lake, on a golf course, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
John Armor is a graduate of Yale, and Maryland Law School, and has 33 years practice at law in the US Supreme Court. Mr. Armor has authored seven books and over 750 articles. Armor happily lives on a mountaintop in the Blue Ridge. He can be reached at: John_Armor@aya.yale.edu
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