Photograph by Paul Hobson / Nature PL

Swan Song

words by Willow Defebaugh

Swans seek to mate for life, and migrate each year between two homes. What do we long for in love if not a place, a person to belong to?

“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh

In his fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling,” Hans Christian Andersen tells the story of a duckling who, ostracized by his family, sets out on a journey for belonging. He finds a flock of swans whose beauty seems unattainable, followed by various animals who reject him. When he can’t take it anymore, he seeks exile, and suffers a long, hard winter alone. Deciding death would be better, he flings himself at that flock of swans—only to be accepted by them. Seeing his reflection in the water, he realizes that at some point, he had become a beautiful swan.


Like many fables, this one contains traces of truth and fabrication. Swans—a group of waterfowls that fall under the genus Cygnus—do begin their lives looking quite different from the graceful giants we see skimming the waves and soaring through the sky. For the first two to three years of their existence, young cygnets sport short necks and plumage of mottled gray. In their third or fourth year, their alabaster (or black, in Australia) feathers emerge as they mature into adulthood. As with all things on this Earth, it takes time for them to grow into themselves.


Swans seek to mate for life, and they live a long time; adult swans will live for up to twenty years in the wild and as many as 50 in captivity. And like our ugly duckling, some species journey far for family and home. Tundra swans breed in the Arctic, and then migrate to North America’s coasts to winter on their lakes and shores—a round-trip journey of 3,725 miles that they make twice a year. What do we long for in love if not a place, a person to belong to? 


Love is written all throughout the lore of swans. The name Cygnus comes from an Ancient Greek myth about a king of the same name who the gods transformed into a swan and then a constellation to relieve his sorrow at the loss of his lover Phaethon. This might be rooted in the fact that swans not only mate for life, but mourn their loved ones for days at a time—a potential source of the swan song, which refers to a final act or performance. While it was believed that swans sing only at the time of their death, they are actually capable of vocalization all their lives.


Our fascination with swans matches our obsession with beauty. Who hasn’t felt like the ugly duckling at times? Every day, we are presented with visual paragons of perfection; on screens both silver and small, we are indoctrinated into others’ ideas of what’s beautiful and who we need to be. Born from that constant exposure is a deep-seated insecurity that we’re not enough, the anthem of consumption. We learn to believe that in order to be accepted, in order to find love, we must look outside of ourselves. It’s no wonder that the beauty industry is worth $534 billion.


And yet, it’s the planet that pays the price. The cosmetics industry is responsible for 120 billion units of plastic packaging produced and 18 million acres of forest lost each year. Not to mention the toxic ingredients that are used in the products themselves. As writer Zoe Suen dug into for Atmos recently, even “clean beauty” is dependent on fossil fuel-derived chemicals, and stained with greenwashing: “Beyond packaging, shipping, and other processes that we typically link to sustainability, common beauty ingredients—even ones marketed as clean—can harm the planet.”


Scattered across the stars of so many stories about swans is a theme of transformation. Perhaps this is because of the arresting aesthetic metamorphosis they undergo from cygnet into swan. Or maybe it’s a projection of our own relentless desire to change so that we might find belonging. But the ugly truth is, we can’t control who accepts us. We can only accept ourselves. So don’t wait till the end to sing your song. After all, what’s remarkable in the ugly duckling’s story isn’t his transformation into something beautiful, but his realization of what he was all along.

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