The birds apparently regard Richmond as a must-stop overnight on their annual journey, and they're particularly fond of a stand of Bradford pear trees along 17th Street, adjacent to the Farmers' Market.
Humans finally became aware of the annual visit, and now there's a Purple Martin Festival arranged by several nature groups. As Richmond festivals go, it's pretty low-key. There are no beer trucks with wrist band stations, no bands, no food vendors. At most there's an ice cream truck, maybe, or Jonathan Austin, the city's ubiquitious juggler/magician/comedian. Some of the bars offer purple martin specials. But mostly it's just a bunch of people coming together and looking up at the sky.
If this sounds odd to you, you're right. But it's also such a renewal of faith in humankind. City folk come out at dusk in a neighborhood that suburbanites regard as crime-ridden and dangerous, and we just stand around, talking and watching. Nothing happens except that a bunch of birds starts gathering and circling in the sky, then suddenly swoops down to the trees.
At one moment you're feeling like an idiot looking up at nothing. Then there's an audible swell in the crowd, and the birds come down. The trees suddenly have a voice. It's thrilling in a primal way, and it connects us to the larger world in a way that people often regard as lacking in urban life.
Through several years, the Purple Martin Festival has remained small, probably because there are so many variables when birds are involved. It's difficult to time the festival, and who knows when the birds might decide to find a different place to roost? And now the idea of building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom is back on the boards; if my readings are correct, that means the trees will be taken out. The birds will go elsewhere.
I like baseball, and I'm all for any revitalization this neighborhood can get. But I'm not sure I'm ready to give up this wacky tradition that connects our city so directly to the greater world. Will the Flying Squirrels have a Purple Martin Night, with purple feathered hats going to the first 200 customers?