Saint James Harris Wood was awarded First Place in Essay in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.

The Swallow War

After 15 years down, I assume that prison life can’t get any more off-kilter or annoying; but then, some cruel functionary starts a war against the local swallows. Each early dawn and during the fading light of dusk I love to watch the hardy little birds hurtling in tandem by the hundreds, coasting and whipping around the sky, exercising or herding bugs maybe, or perhaps just flying for the joy of it. I enjoy it, watching their huge swarm, a thousand strong, wheeling around like drunken feathered acrobats, breathtaking and beautiful as they pursue and eradicate every bee, fly, mosquito, moth, and whatever else is in the air and smaller than the hungry little assassins. Watching the sparrows is better than TV or pinochle and has the distinct bouquet of freedom.

In the hills surrounding my home, the California Men’s Colony, dwell macabre flying spiders who contrive to get to the top of our absurdly high (50 yards) light towers. The ambitious spiders lay thousands of eggs up there, and when the babies hatch, windy days are a signal for them to make web kites, and all at once the entire spider congregation takes off, mostly to be killed and eaten by the swallows, thank God; but last year the flying baby spiders launched themselves while the sparrows were off somewhere else, having heard of special mud for their nests in another county. The spiders spread across the sky, the yard, all over the buildings and grass, landing on our clothes and hair for an hour, until finally the sparrows returned home. It was a scene, or more properly an outburst of nature (a tantrum?) to see a thousand swallows dodging about en masse, performing maneuvers, eradicating the remaining spiders, still aloft. The baby spiders take it stoically as a countless number of their comrades had made it to the ground before the massacre. Like everyone, I can’t help but wonder how the swallows manage to perform their complicated mass dance and aerial gyrations—spinning, swirling, churning, clouds of feathers and grace so unlike our clumsy human world—without ever crashing into each other and falling to the ground like Icarus, or me.

These American Cliff Swallows have been coming to San Luis Obispo for a thousand years, flying up from Goya, Argentina (if we are to believe them), and once here they frantically, industriously search out little globs of mud and build nests that resemble tiny brown desert igloos. The prison is smack dab in the middle of the little birds’ centuries old customary nesting grounds. Figuring that we’ve placed the prison here for their convenience, the swallows build their nests in the infrastructure of the steel girders—imagine a bridge built in a square with all the little caches, tiny lairs, and small dens that three stories of steel beams offer. This singular edifice sits in the center of the prison; it’s open air and we call it the plaza. There are a couple of trees, some sickly grass, and a 100 yard circular sidewalk in the plaza connecting our four yards. All the cops, free staff, and convicts (around 3,000 people) march through it to work, to school, to the library, and everywhere else we are compelled to go during the day, from four in the morning until around ten at night. Right above the sidewalk is the metal structure with its niches, nooks, and crannies—about every four to five inches—where the swallows build their nests, and there are a couple thousand of these spaces in the plaza. It is a wonderfully odd and happenstance open air aviary—except of course for the barbed wire and incarceration. The swallows are free and the humans are trapped. As we walk back and forth beneath their nests to school and work, the swallows, who apparently aren’t afraid of humans, stare grumpily at us, trespassing in their prison.

For nine years I’ve watched the whole process: birds arrive, build nests like tiny lunatic construction crews, at dawn and dusk they twirl and swirl through the sky (often feinting and mock fighting for obscure reasons), and conveniently patrol our little valley and eat countless bugs. Out here in the near wilderness there are bugs galore and I am grateful that the mosquitoes, midges, and spiders are dealt such a blow, the swallows keeping them from my flesh. They have to maintain their high pitched metabolisms, fuel up for all the precise turbulent aerial displays, and when the time comes, feed their fledglings. Eggs are laid and the mock fighting increases as they defend their nests from imaginary threats. Soon (two weeks), frighteningly tiny swallows are hatched, mindlessly cheeping for bugs and whatever else is on the menu. In quick order the fledglings are stumbling around, careless of danger (the hideous local seagulls sometimes eat them); with typical swallow speed the kids are as big as their parents within a month. The fledglings and their parents fly around for three months or so, dealing further blows to the neighborhood bug population; and then, like a theatrical troupe, the swallows leave town—the whole mad swarm wheels in circles putting on one last show with the rising sun, then it is back to South America or Jerusalem (a tale that has drifted up the coast from San Juan Capistrano) or wherever. It is all rumor to me, we’re not allowed the internet. One of my friends googled swallows and ended up garnishing the Jerusalem myth with the implausibly tall, probable fairytale that the swallows carry twigs while flying over the Atlantic towards Israel, so that they can occasionally lay their twig in the ocean and settle down on it to float for a while and catch some zzzs. The remarkable little birds even have exceptional fables—likely by-products of their extensive wandering.


But then, suddenly, some deranged prison bureaucrat decides to destroy the nests, and covers the infrastructure with nets, thinking to stop the swallows’ cycle so that they will go elsewhere. The plan fails completely. The swallows are outraged and flip out for an entire day. Since they seem quite mad to start with, it is sad and disturbing to see them lose it. In a rage, the swallows swarm that night like usual, taking out their fury on the bugs, but the fluidity and poetry is gone, and though they still somehow avoid mid-air crashes—their usual nighttime display of flying beauty is gory and tumultuous, organized chaos the order of the day, all elegance vitiated. Where the swallows all previously stuck together in a flock during their evening acrobatics, now dozens of them fly off madly, helter skelter, nearly (but never) running into buildings and even people. I was worried: for the birds, for the eggs that had no place to be laid, for nature itself. Watching cops bring in crews to destroy the remaining nests and put up the nets is aggravating, and I try to find an address for The National Swallow Association or somesuch. Swallows in California have had problems with humans before. Near the end of the 1800s the tiny colorful feathers on the Barn Swallow’s rumps were put on hats desired by politicians’ wives and prostitutes. Hatters had the swallows killed, plucked the feathers, and threw away the remains. Subsequently, almost driving the Barn Swallow into extinction, in the name of fashion. This threat led to the founding of the first Audubon Society in 1888.

I don’t go near the plaza for a long weekend. On Monday, walking to school, I see that the instinct-driven little savages have built new nests (the previous nests had taken at least a week to build) everywhere, including some hanging off the nets like an illusion—Daliesque constructs in weird new shapes, many of them twice as big as their previous nests. There are mud nests in light fixtures, on trash cans, on clocks, on top of other nests! The little bastards refuse to yield or surrender. I don’t think swallows know how to give up. The dauntless creatures have to deal with hurricanes, hungry hawks, foxes, and every other kind of test nature can throw at them—humans probably just seem like incompetent skinny bears on a rampage, to be ignored. It’s not over yet, it is time to lay eggs, a dishearteningly dramatic development. If the prison wants to attack nature I don’t know why the cops don’t start with the cursed seagulls who are here year-round shitting on everything (and everyone!) in huge amounts with wild abandon, while fighting insanely over garbage and squawking obnoxiously like aging hookers. Seagulls will lock beaks over an apple core until they’re bleeding. Everybody hates the seagulls. So, if the authorities want to deal with a bird problem, they should deport the goddamn witless seagulls back to the sea.

Strangely, there appear to be twice as many nests and swallows as there were before the attempted eviction. In the past, other than giving us grumpy looks with their beady eyes, the swallows ignored people. They mostly won’t even take food from us (while the seagulls wait outside the chow hall and beg like retarded dogs). I get the impression that the swallows are now riled and keeping an eye on us. Luckily, the cops have given up after the first round of smashed nests. And nobody knows who ordered it. As most of the happenings at the California Men’s Colony, it is a mystery. Nevertheless, this year’s swallows are laying their eggs, and things have returned to what passes for normal.