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Your book is about the many birds who live with you—they seem to be in every corner of your house. How does that affect your writing?

Well, it is sometimes strange to have animals talking to me when I’m working. But they can be helpful. For example, our African gray parrot, Mia Bird, often sits in my office and commands me to “Focus! Focus!” as I write. That usually does the trick if I start drifting off. One time, a rainbow lorikeet named Harli was quarantined for a few weeks in my office—we separate and observe new birds before introducing them to the flock. As I worked, Harli would settle on my head and groom me, kindly plucking a hair or two along the way. By the time her quarantine period was over, I had a small, perfectly shaped oval of bare scalp on the top of my head. Still, I did get a lot of writing done during those few weeks.

Raffin_BirdsofPandemonium_HC_jkt_LRI rise every morning just after 4:00 a.m. — gladly on most days — and pad as silently as possible across the terra-cotta- tiled floors of our home. If I make the smallest sound as I pass by the dining room, they might hear. I don’t want to set off our resident clown posse — not yet.

“Hello? Want out! I love you!”

Darn. Shana is awake. I ignore her squawky blandishments, and she tries harder.

“Pretty mama, pretty mama. I love you!”

I smile to myself and wait her out. Finally, silence returns. As I finish a mug of tea and an hour of administrative work in my office, dawn flares over the foothills of the Santa Cruz range to our west. Every morning at first light, I step outside into the bewitching bird music that heralds another day at Pandemonium Aviaries, the home and bird sanctuary that I share with my family, two donkeys, a pair of goats, a collie, a sheepdog, one understandably aloof elder cat, and some of the world’s most remarkable birds.

Someday This Will be Funny, Tillman’s collection of short works, takes us through a myriad of subjects and styles—some with fast-paced quirkiness and economy of language, others with monotone didacticism.It’s amazing that the writer who turned out a multi-layered piece of flash fiction about a woman who hoards unpaid parking tickets in her glove compartment is also the same writer who produced a dull, overly sentimental and philosophical, essay-story-hybrid about mourning doves sitting at her window—unfortunately, the first piece in the collection.

A few years ago, I put a bird feeder in the back yard. I had landscaped everything to verdant idyll, making it a perfect sanctuary for my avian pals, save for the cats. But one was a scaredy-cat who had no backbone for hunting, and one was so fat from her eating disorder that she posed no threat as she and her impressive girth thundered across the yard. The birds could see her coming a mile away.

I’d heard a lot about The Avian Gospels (Short Flight / Long Drive Books) before ever reading it. I’d stared at those covers online, the red and gold, the abstract of birds in flight, and imagined what a combination of The Birds, The Road, and The Stand might look like. Would it be dense language, a languid read of heavy prose? The sample online hinted at that. Would it be a story of nature rebelling against man, an image of a phone booth, birds attacking it, stuck in my head? Would it be a journey across the wastelands, a cast of misfits striving for redemption? It is all of these things, and at the same time, none.

This morning I watched a bird fly into a car in front of me and fall to the asphalt below like a dirty sock that missed the hamper. The bird had been part of a pair, he and his other half swooping down from the trees in the park on the opposite side of the road, as myself and the driver in front of me zoomed by on our way to what was surely some tedious Wednesday destination, mine being work, for which I was already late.

Hardened bread crumbs burst into fine white powder, sprinkling to the ground. Seeds crack under the weight of jaws clinching, and in an imperfect circle the birds gather round the old man and strut mechanically, their fat necks jerking. They welcome him as if he is one of their own, and he in turn accepts their embrace, and feeds them grain as everyday, assuredly white proso millet and milo for the dark-eyed junco.

The sky is layered pink then orange then blue with clouds of white cotton and gray mastheads splotched throughout. A slight chill fills the air like a cold hand on the back of one’s neck unexpectedly but is otherwise refreshing and silky as it passes from the nostrils to the lungs and presses against the gut.

Crouched, the old black man talks to the birds in low whispers as if they are his children. The birds of variegated species listen attentively, cocking their heads momentarily at his voice and scoop with their stout beaks into the ground seeds threaded underneath blades of grass still wet with dew and they mash the seeds near into dust, and the wet, green blades turn white with chalk.

Laggardly, the old black man rises from his crouched position in Washington Park and stands as erect as the arthritis buried deep in his joints will allow. Muscle, bone, and tendon like toothed pinions within a three wheel skeleton clock turn slowly but surely, never faltering though their movement so supine you are certain will one day just stop, the hand of the clock ceasing, time standing still. The body no more.

He stands upright and looks over his shoulder in my direction. Even from afar, I see the crow’s feet carved into his skin on the sides of each eye, brown and deep. His eyelid hangs droopily, weighted down by age and gravity, the skin loose. His eyebrows scrunch almost touching, three wrinkles to each side of the center of his brow, as he tries to make out the other figure in the park.

I had, for about a week now, been coming to the park each day around 4:00 PM to sit and watch the old man. I watched the way the birds greeted him each day, welcoming him as if he were one of their own, birds of one feather.

The old black man spots me. His arm shoots into the air, waving. I wave back. And he turns around and again reaches into his pocket scooping seed out for the birds and they flutter around his body, wings spread then tight against their bodies.

I was now transfixed on the snow pack up on the roof of that big red barn. Out of the blue.

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Something told me it was gonna fall. It was all gonna come down. All eleven tons of it. All at the same time. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind.

“How do you know?” Boner asked.

“I dunno,” I said, “I just know. I can feel it.”

“Come on,” Boner said.

“No man, it’s gonna happen. It’s all gonna come sliding off. In one fell swoop. I’m tellin’ ya. You’ll see.”

“You’re fuckin’ high, Milo.”

“I may be high,” I said, “but somethin’ told me when we got out of the Carlo,


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that all that snow is gonna come sliding off that roof.”

“How can you tell? Did you see it move?”

“No, not exactly. It’s more of a premonition. Sorta like a déjà vu that hasn’t materialized yet.”

Milo, that same pack of snow has been up there for months. Like four or five months. What makes you think it’s gonna come down right now, while we’re watching?”

“Like I said, I don’t know exactly how I know, but I know. Sometimes you just know stuff. Just keep watching that roof Boner and we are going to see it come down.”

“Well, I doubt it’s gonna come down right now but if it does come down, those cows milling around underneath are gonna get sacked.”


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“You’re right. Good point. Maybe we should try to scare them off or lead them into the barn or alert the farmer or…”

“How do we even know it’s gonna happen right now? Or in the next twenty minutes? Or in the middle of the night? Or three days from now? We don’t. That’s the point, Milo, we don’t know. Shit, man.”

“It is gonna happen. Just hang tight.”

“Ah man, we could be watchin’ Hogan’s Heroes right now. It’s after 3:30.”

“You don’t believe me? You think I’m jivin’ you?”

“I don’t know, man. You get freaky sometimes when you get stoned. And you make all these big cosmic proclamations. And you expect me to go along with them. And you know for the most part, it’s just the hooch talkin’.” It’s just the hooch talkin’. It’s just the hooch talkin’.

I remained glued to the roof of the massive barn, my lids at half-mast, knowing the descent of that snow was inevitable.

“Sometimes Boner, the hooch knows what it’s talkin’ about. The hooch helps us to see dimensions of things we wouldn’t ordinarily see, you know, a hyper-sensitivity. A super-reality. There’s like, a central receptacle within all of us that holds everything. Knows everything.”

“I think that’s what they call the Scrotum, bro.” Boner slapped his leg.

“OK. You can goof all you want Boner, but I’m actually pretty serious right now. I’m talking about the Omniscient Wisdom Container.”

“The om-fucking what kind of container?”

“The Omniscient Wisdom Container. The…the…the…the eternal bloom holder. A…a…a crystal saline water vase that holds eleven oceans. The like, sordid history within our cellular patterns. The cumulative knowledge in the fat of our earlobes. The trillions of souls in the calves of our legs.”

“OK Mr. Spaceman. If you’re talking about the DNA strip, I can almost dig that. And the human instinct thing too. And if you’re figuring that it’s March and it’s Spring and like, the sun has been out for the past two days, melting and loosening that base of ice up there, I can go with that. But this bloom holder of eternity stuff, you know, I don’t know, man. I mean, that snow could be up there for another week or two. I mean, fuck…”

“Yeah but the thing is, I know and I don’t know how I know, but I just know. C’mon Boner, you gotta be with me on this. It’s ready to go. It’s gonna drop. All of it. All that snow. All like, eleven tons of it. Soon. You’ll see, man.”

“OK Mister Chicken Little-the sky-is-falling saying it again and again. You’re fuckin’ looped, dude.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

I could feel Boner surveying me, wrinkling that Pizon schnoz of his and pushing his glasses up, blinking like an owl, wondering if I was just fucking with him, which I was prone to do. He was looking for conviction. Knowing that this very second was crucial, I didn’t flinch, laser beaming the crest of that snow-covered roof with all of my supernatural resolve. He was either gonna leave me standing there in the driveway like a foolish dope or he was going to hang out and commit to the mystical trip.

“Do you wanna smoke, man?”

“Yes,” I said. “I would like a cigarette.”

***

I had Nicole up just the way she liked it. Squeezed and kneaded her flanks like wet clay, making her move it. I held it good and still, helping every fifth or sixth time. The Tahoe National Forest was positively incandescent natural heaven on this late vernal morning and I was wrapped up and drawn out the window into the bright greens of the Jack pines against the super-white shining of the diamonds in the snow.

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My endorphin machine synthesized the natural elements into a sacred sweaty swirl where the aereolic clouds pillowed the loins and cotton was the rooster and everything turned into either hill or valley or river or bush and at the exact moment I put it all over her back, a bird flew into the glass of the window with a sickening little pt-ink-fup, leading with its beak. Our bodies jumped, jerked out of our insular plane. It might as well have been a gunshot.

“What was that?” she asked breathing.

“A bird I think. I think a bird just ran into the window. I’m gonna go see.”

“Stay,” she purred. “It’s just a dead bird.”

“It might not be dead,” I said. “ I’m gonna go check.”

“Milo, c’mon…”

I gathered over to the window and there, bounced three feet back from the house on the hardened snow, lay a Mountain Chickadee,

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twitching in the confusing throes of a rude collision.

“It’s still alive. I’m gonna go check it out.”

“C’mon Milo. What’s the big deal? You gonna go out like that? In just your wife-beater?”

I threw my robe on and left my boots untied. The snow by the side of the house had a springtime crust from the run-off and I found myself breaking through six inches down with each step, squinting against the sun. What the hell was I really doing out here anyway?

Coming up on the bird, it appeared now to be silent. Upon closer inspection, it was palpitating slightly, its neck turned unnaturally, its beak partially opened, its eye film half-drawn and a tiny sparkle of light visible in the onyx eye.

“Is it dead?” she asked from the window.

“Nope,” I said. “But she’s in shock all right.”

“Probably more in shock from what she saw through the bedroom window,” she quipped.

“Yeah, damn,” I said, sort of smiling. “That must be it.”

I cupped my hand over her shoulder trying to take her and she sprung, alarmed by my touch. It was most likely the first time she had been touched by anything other than feather, wood, weather or sky.

“Well at least she’s conscious,” I said.

There was no response. I looked up to the window. Nicole had moved on to do something else. I got that weird foolish feeling that you get when you’re talking to someone whom you thought was your captive audience, listening behind you, and they leave the room without saying a word and you jabber on about something important before you find that you’re alone, talking to yourself. Oi.

The bird had leapt toward the house, just under the eaves trough. When I came to her, she lay in a sunspot, huffing. I moved my hands toward her again when a large clear droplet of snow water fell into the ruffles of her neck and she flew off in a start, awkward and wobbly, landing under a juniper bush twenty yards back into the woods. She had summoned enough concentrated strength to fly away into the bushes to either convalesce or to die in peace without the hovering presence of an alien. My grandfather once told me that birds who flew into windows suffered concussions, slipping into temporary comas and as long as their necks weren’t broken and they weren’t attacked by cats in the meantime, they could snap out of their coma on a dime and fly away as if nothing ever happened. Come to think of it, the same phenomena occurred with me when I was tossed over the handlebars of a dirt bike a few years back, landing on the crown of my helmeted head whereupon I popped right back up and got up on the bike, cool as a cucumber. Or so I thought. My friends had seen the accident and told me after the fact, that I had laid motionless for three minutes, appearing very dead, when out of nowhere I popped back up, looking almost possessed. Birds, humans, knockin’ ourselves silly.

I guessed that my work had been done here, not that I really accomplished anything with the bird. And although it was Spring in the mountains and the sun was out, it was still frickin’ cold as a witch’s wrinkled bellybutton and I was still only wearing a robe and boots. I started retracing my tracks, stepping back into the foot-holes toward the house when a low bassey ominous scraping sound jerked my head around to witness the four-foot high pack of snow sliding off of the roof onto the patch of ground where I had been with the bird not forty seconds earlier. A veritable bludgeoning avalanche of a multi-tonnage parcel of frozen water blocks hit the ground with thwomps of muted heaviness certain to flatten or maim any living thing under its deadly cross-hairs. Wow. Fuck. Shit. Goddamn even.

“What was that, Milo?” Nicole asked coming quickly to the window.

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. She looked down at the pile of thick white tombstones and my footprints leading in. Then she looked over at me, less than ten feet away.

“Holy shit,” she said.

“Holy shit is right,” I said, releasing my breath.

One wouldn’t normally think of falling snow as a leading cause of death but throughout the ages literally thousands of humans, dogs, horses and cattle have been clobbered, paralyzed and killed by snow falling from houses, buildings and mountains, even critically stabbed by falling icicles. Bludgeoned by spring thaw.

And I had been spared. And the bird had been spared. A veritable dual reprieve. Had I saved the bird’s life? Or had the drop of snow water saved the bird’s life, thereby saving my life? And was it possible that the three ounces of bird hitting the window had reverberated through the walls of the house loosening the snow from its moorings? Or had it been the wicked motion within the bedroom? Or had it been the exponential sum of both movements coupled with the spring blast of the sun? Or was it just a coincidence? Or was it a coinciding?

As I attempted to assimilate what had just transpired, I teleported back to Boner and me watching the roof of that barn on that ordinary spring day fifteen years back. I had been so sure and Boner so skeptical and we watched that roof for close to twenty minutes before that snow pack came careening off that 40 x 60 tin roof like the epic frozen ghost of Niagara Falls. I can still see that orange cow, in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, crumpling under the weight of that snow, its legs buckling and snapping, a dreadful noise mixed with the muffled caterwaul of a guttural moo. I can still see it. In my wisdom container. I can still see it all. That and the expression on Boner’s face.

I’m writing this in rural western New York, where out my workroom window I’ve seen deer, woodchucks, hawks and, once, a weasel. Last week a fox I hadn’t seen before came to check things out. I let these animals alone though I admit to throwing sticks at the woodchucks, who eat my phlox, and I warned my chicken-raising neighbor about the weasel. The plants and animals I look at seem to belong here, but most of them, even the birds at my feeder, have their origins somewhere else. I don’t think of them as invasive, but they are.

I grew up in Hilo, a town on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and I go back there every year, to live for a while in the house I grew up in. In Hilo you can’t help being aware of the tension between invasive and endemic species, and I don’t mean as metaphor for tourists and locals. Ordinary folk talk about it and some of them take action. Most don’t. Some don’t see a problem. Some argue that in Hawai’i everything is invasive, because the islands aren’t very old, and each group of immigrants, starting with the Hawaiians, has brought in plants and animals and turned them loose. In this view you end up trying to decide how long a species has to be resident before it should be let alone, or even protected. And that’s not easy. As you can imagine, the issue carries a giant freighter-load of political-economic-philosophical-religious-scientific baggage, and if you think that I’m going to unpack that mess in my first TNB piece, you’re wrong. I like vexing questions, but there’s a limit.

As a boy, I spent a lot of happy time at the town dump. My mom would drive my gang down there to play, which meant shooting mongoose with .22 rifles, or, in my case, a little single-shot .410 shotgun. Shooting mongoose! WTF? Hang on. You have to understand that mongoose (like deer – same word, singular or plural) are officially vermin in Hawai’i, so snuffing them is encouraged.

Give me a chance here. If you’re remembering how the term vermin was used not long ago in the American West, you’re already pissed. You’re remembering when Western ranchers set out sodium fluoroacetate, also known as 1080, to carpet-bomb endemic predators like coyotes, puma, and wolves. They claimed their livestock (which we’d surely tag with the invasive label if they weren’t domesticated and edible) needed protection from vermin, and so they poisoned, shot, and trapped as they pleased. Shooting wolves from aircraft is bad enough, but the toll from wholesale poisoning in the West was orders of magnitude greater. 1080 doesn’t discriminate, so there was a lot of collateral damage.

Don’t be pissed at me. The Hawai’i mongoose-as-vermin thing is different.

Maybe you’re thinking yeah, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, mongoose hero, saves the white family, all that Kipling crap. But I’m not talking about endemic Indian mongoose. I’m talking about the seventy-two mongoose that idiot fat-cat sugar planters brought to Hawai’i in 1883, from India by way of Jamaica, to get rid of the rats who ate the cane. Fewer rats, higher profits. Simple.

The Jamaican sugar planter morons had had their mongoose for about ten years, but didn’t seem to have noticed anything about their habits, or else the Hawaiian sugar planter idiots didn’t ask. Nobody knew, or nobody revealed, that mongoose are diurnal (active in the daytime, in case you don’t know that term) whereas rats are nocturnal. So they don’t meet up except by accident.

When they do meet up the mongoose does its duty and kills the rat and eats it, but they don’t meet up very often unless both forget and start being crepuscular, having not tracked gathering or diminishing light carefully enough. (Crepuscular describes animals active during low light levels, typically dawn or dusk but also during solar eclipses or heavy ash falls from a volcano or burning sugar cane fields.) So if the mongoose gets up early, and the rat’s been out late partying, it’s bad for the rat but it’s all good for the sugar planters, or at least it would have been had it happened very often. But it didn’t. And now that the sugar industry’s gone it’s not good for anybody except the mongoose.

What the sugar planters unleashed on Hawai’i were dusty-colored short-legged long-tailed bird killing machines. Whatever native species the rats hadn’t taken out (the big bad-ass Norway rats arrived on sailing ships with the Europeans; the Polynesian rat hadn’t been much of a problem) the mongoose set to work finishing off. When it became clear there was no upside to mongoose, they were classified as vermin and kids with guns and traps were encouraged to kill them.

Adults who wanted to help used different methods. When I’m driving on back roads I have to be mindful of who I’ve got in the car with me. I was taught to step on the gas when a mongoose starts across the road, the better to run over it and kill it. But if I have mainland visitors with me, I don’t – at least not until I’ve explained. It doesn’t always work because some of them seem to have had the Kipling Mongoose Myth burned into their brains. That mongoose could save us from Nag and Nagaina, the deadly cobras!

But there are no snakes in Hawai’i, except for the ones that modern-day morons have smuggled in, or careless cargo packers haven’t noticed. Like the Brown Tree Snake, out of Melanesia by way of Guam, where it pretty much finished off all the bird species there. What’s left of the Hawaiian endemic fauna, and there’s not much, is going to be taken out by the Brown Tree Snake, if it ever gets a foothold, speaking metaphorically of course.

So wait! Maybe the mongoose isn’t so bad, and I should let up on the accelerator or even brake for them. Nope. Not gonna do it. The Brown Tree Snake is nocturnal.


I have had much more difficult commutes.  The 50-mile trip between Willimantic and Mystic was pretty exhausting (and nerve-wracking during snowstorms). The journey between New Brunswick and Iselin was only about 10 miles, but it took an hour each way. (That’s New Jersey for you.)  I’ve had daily travels that are far more trying than the 8/10 of a mile between my house and Real Art Ways.

That’s right. It’s less than a mile. And I drive it far more frequently than I walk it.

Don’t look at me like that – you would too, if you were faced with walking through that neighborhood alone after 8 p.m.

It’s not the commute itself, I think, that’s getting to me. It’s something about me at this point and how I manage to align myself with and against the unending ennui of modern life.

I should provide a bit of context, perhaps, on my relationship to boredom. My mother told me throughout my childhood, much in the manner of John Berryman’s mother, that to say you’re bored suggests that you aren’t intelligent enough to make your situation stimulating. So, for me, this is a topic filled with landmines and the discussion of it is in itself stimulating. Take that, boredom!

In his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm provides us with a description of the “compensated boredom” that occurs on such a large scale in modern life. He writes:

There are several probable reasons that chronic, compensated boredom is generally not considered pathological. Perhaps the main reason is that in contemporary industrial society most people are bored, and a shared pathology – the “pathology of normalcy” – is not experienced as pathology. Furthermore, “normal” boredom is usually not conscious. Most people succeed in compensating for it by participating in a great number of “activities” that prevent them from consciously feeling bored. Eight hours of the day they are busy making a living; when the boredom would threaten to become conscious, after business hours, they avoid this danger by the numerous means that prevent manifest boredom: drinking, watching television, taking a ride, going to parties, engaging in sexual activities, and, the more recent fashion, taking drugs. Eventually their natural need for sleep takes over, and the day is ended successfully if boredom has not been experienced consciously at any point. (273-274).

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially as I consider the way I approach my days. For instance, during my most recent “vacation” (by which I mean the period during which my office was closed – not some kind of trip I might have taken), I filled each hour with an activity. For example, here’s December 30, 2008:

  • 8 – 9 a.m.: Wake up, morning routine, coffee, time to read the paper
  • 9 – 11 a.m.: Read Michelle’s dissertation prospectus, collect thoughts
  • 11 a.m. – noon: Read Heart of Darkness
  • noon – 1 p.m.: Read Superdove
  • 1 – 2 p.m.: Draft response to Michelle
  • 2 – 5 p.m.: Gym (with travel and showering time included)
  • 5 – 6 p.m.: Work on TNB post (Hi!)
  • 6 – 8 p.m.: Work on New Wave Eve mix
  • 8 – 9 p.m.: Dinner
  • 9 – 11 p.m.: Watch La Haine
  • 11 p.m. – midnight: Catch up on emails

I made myself an hourly schedule for my time off.

Fromm proposes why this method might be unsuccessful at staving off the effects of boredom:

in the superficial relief from boredom, the whole person, and particularly his deeper feeling, his imagination, his reason, in short all his essential facilities and psychic potentialities remain untouched; they are not brought to life; the boredom-compensating means are like a bulky food without any nutritional value. The person continues to feel “empty” and unmoved on a deeper level. He “anesthetizes” this uncomfortable feeling by momentary excitation, “thrill,” “fun,” liquor, or sex – but unconsciously he remains bored. (275)

So, while it might seem that filling my day with art history, literature, writing, and film would lead to “deeper feeling” that engages my “essential facilities and psychic potentialities,” the very way I go about filling the day gives rise to a feeling of emptiness. I imagine the reason I so often can’t sleep at night has something to do with a need to provide myself with still time – quiet, unconstrained time – during which I can reflect.

When one is bored, time stretches out; it becomes languid and difficult to grasp onto. Meaning seems to me to work like knots in a rope. Lars Svendsen, who’s written a philosophic overview on boredom, describes it thus: “Where there is a lack of personal meaning, all sorts of diversions have to create a substitute – an ersatz-meaning” (26). Perhaps it isn’t surprising that to ballast myself up against this onslaught of repetitive and unceasing routine, I find ways of exercising my fancy, ways of tying knots. I feel better during those fleeting moments each day in my car, on my 0.8-mile commute, when I see the flock of pigeons, than how I feel when I’m being productive.

From Sylvia Plaths copy of The Great Gatsby

DAILY THOUGHTS ON SERPENTINING SUPERDOVES

Every morning, somewhere above the buildings near the southeast corner of Farmington and Sisson, a flock of pigeons serpentines again and again. I watch them as I’m stopped at Hartford’s second most annoying traffic light.

You can look at the superdoves here. This was all perfectly safe, of course.

My mother isn’t crazy about birds. That’s not entirely true. My mother isn’t crazy about large flocks of birds. I think this probably has something to do with the age she was – thirteen and impressionable – whenThe Birds came out. She particularly dislikes pigeons and generally puts them in the category of dirty pests. I have what I consider to be a healthy streak of contrariness, so I like pigeons. I would probably never do this:

liz plus pig(eons)

but I’ve always liked those little iridescent bits at their necks and the fluttering sound their wings make and their cooing.

And I have particular affection for groups of birds – everything from the family of mallards that live in our stream each spring, to the Vs of geese that I’d crane my neck to see as a girl, to the murder of crows that lives in Hartford in the winters. On a recent trip to Prince Edward Island, I walked right into the ocean to get closer to some plummeting Gannets.

Pigeons weren’t always considered pests – in fact, they’re non-native to the US, so their entire existence on this continent is, it turns out, evidence of their former status. Courtney Humphries’ lovely and excellently-titled book Superdove outlines the social role of Columbia livia in American history. Keeping pigeons was something of a class marker, so naturally the aristocrats and statesmen who eventually made their way to America wanted to bring their pigeons along. These landlords’ birds propagated and propagated, and they served to mark their owner’s class as much as they also filled his gut.

Restaurants – mostly high-end ones – still serve pigeon meat. Apparently, it’s quite good.

But pigeon appreciation – can I make up a word for this? palomaphilia – wasn’t strictly observed by the leisurely classes.  Darwin only felt prepared to publish The Origin of Species after working extensively with pigeons. He actually grew quite fond of his little doves. As he states in a letter to a friend: “I am getting on with my Pigeon Fancy and now have pairs of nine very distinct varieties, and I love them to that extent that I cannot bear to kill and skeletonise them.”

The armed forces of many countries have put pigeons to work saving battalions and winning battles. In more prosperous days, when wire services were less reliable, financiers and market traders depended upon news that traveled by pigeon; they were called Pigeon Men.

They were once so honored! It seems to me to be so arbitrary, the favor in and out of which groups fall with humans.

As I sit at that damned stoplight, I make myself feel better by making up stories about my serpentining superdoves. Here are some theories:

  • sometimes I imagine they’re being trained to deliver crack
  • sometimes that they’re a colony of obsessive-compulsive birds who must perform serpentines en masse, before dispersing for the day to find food
  • sometimes that they live under their own small fascist state and that the flying pattern is part of daily required morning exercises
  • sometimes that they are carefully tracing the paths of some maniacally swooping mice on the ground below
  • or perhaps that the people who live in the nearby retirement community are out for wheelchair grace training (the superdoves are super-empaths)
  • Another flight of fancy is that they are actually passenger pigeons and that I am some kind of brilliant ornithologist savant who has discovered the only surviving flock!

Another possibility: Maybe this fascination, this weaving of unlikely narrative, has more to do with an affinity I feel for pigeons. If we define animals in relation to ourselves, our identities, our own lives, then the essence of the pigeon, the entire reason we fostered them through the centuries, is their love of home and their seemingly boundless will to return home. They are fellow commuters.