Beyond the swan song

Swans near Monticello, Minnesota (PHOTO: Nina Hale, Flickr CC-BY)

I remember in school when we read “The Trumpet of the Swan” by E.B. White. Like White’s other famous children’s novels, “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” this story centers on an animal with many human abilities. 

In this case, we meet Louis, the trumpeter swan who has no voice. A boy, Sam, forms a special bond with Louis and his family. He even teaches the swan how to read and write on a small chalkboard. Eventually, Louis learns to play the trumpet. He uses this musical adaptation to win the love of a special young swan, but then must contend with other dangers. It’s a charming story, perfect for young readers.

One of the important themes throughout the book is the scarcity of swans. They were endangered both when the story was written in 1970 and when I read it in the early 1990s. In the story, threats to even one little swan appeared a threat to the entire species. So as you read “The Trumpet of the Swan,” which includes many close calls, the stakes always ran high. Life is about more than the individual; it is about all of us.

In class we talked about what was being done to reintroduce swans in Minnesota. At the time, I only rarely saw swans in the wild. Later, as a young adult, I started seeing them around northern Minnesota more often. But the most stunning evidence of success presented itself to me just recently.

My son Henry and I participate in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. The area we count includes open water at the Prairie River dam near Coleraine. We typically see water fowl there, but when we arrived this December we were quickly amazed. 

More than 40 swans — we estimated 43 — filled the waterway. Male cobs, Female pens, and a number of cygnets swam, honked, and dove for food. I had never seen so many swans in one place all my life.

In the 1930s, no more than 70 trumpeter swans were believed to live in the United States. The loss of habitat and slow reproduction made the bird incredibly rare. But on a single morning in late 2021, I saw half that many trumpeters on one little river in northern Minnesota. Today, there are more than 17,000 trumpeter swans in Minnesota alone.

Indeed, conservation efforts worked. The swan population fully recovered, to the point that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources no longer lists swans as a threatened species. 

I mention all this as a reminder of the delicate nature of progress and decline. Modern life emphasizes superlatives. Something bad is the worst. Something good is the best. What’s happening now seems destined to happen forever in a straight, uninterrupted line. 

But that’s not even remotely how nature, history, or reality works. The fact is that we don’t have to make continued progress as a species. Food, water, and conveniences are not guaranteed to be plentiful. Prices are not assured of staying low. Jobs do not regenerate like berries in June. In fact, jobs are a most unnatural barometer of human worth.

We can, through our decisions, decline and even die off if we are stubborn or stupid enough to miss our chances. This is true of our community, our country, and even our entire world.

But even though this is true, we may be heartened by the story of the swans. What seems hopeless is rendered possible though simple effort, applied over long periods of time. We who will not directly benefit must only think of some future people before thinking of ourselves. We are, after all, the swans in our own story. 

Perhaps in some version of the future we exist in simpler, more resilient versions of our current places. We have enough food, enough water, and enough of our human culture to keep us healthy and engaged. We may well flourish.

Then again, we could also be huddled alone in some cold inlet, hoping to find open water when the wind lets up, sensing too late that it never will. 

Fate may rationalize past failures, but it must never excuse present inaction.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Excellent ….we are the swans of our own destiny. The populations of swans increased through both accident and intention. One of more incredible stories is the thriving of life forms in the DMZ between south and North Korea. Of course human life would be the exception. Trees crttiers and creatures are all on the upswing. But only because humans do not enter into that world. The rebirth of Yellowstone river and the park itself through the reintroduction of the wolf into the park has worked wonders. Lots of humans worked extremely hard to make that particular example occur. Initiative must be taken as you clearly point out. Now is not the time to backslide. But it is possible. One of your best. Thank you.

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