Every thing in its proper place
When I was 24 I was quite full of myself.
It seems to me now that humility is exponentially proportional to experience. Maybe that’s because you learn the hard way how very much you have to lose, and how little you know about what’s on the other side of this planet, or even the other side of that door. And how very long death is compared to lifespan, how un-final are the surest things.
As the saying goes, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”
But back then I was chock-full of big untested ideas and bravado, and I was unimpeded in saying so. I was fresh out of university and already Northern-Savvy about city life in the USA. And I was traveling as hard as I could to make sure I could count the rest of the world also as my proper domain.
I ended up at some point in France, as you do.
I remember waking early one morning, and propounding haughtily with disgust on a group of pigeons in the south of the country. They were pecking at an empty cornfield which was in the front yard of the 15th-century barn or chateau or castle where I had awoken that morning.
Because at 24 where you might awake, however fabulous, seems incidental to the ability to pronounce finally on anything, I said aloud: “These universal airborn rats! And here, even in the most picturesque of places. Dommage.”
Because, I had been told, they were “airborn rats.” Because I had been taught to hate them. And I had never bothered to test or even examine that idea for merit. (Even exponential curves originate at absolute zero.)
My hostess was the only one awake in a houseful of searching vagabonds whom she had taken in for the night. She was a rough American woman, famous in the rock-climbing world as a woman who excelled at a man’s sport, sympathetic with me, but more worldly, and in ways that counted more. She was obviously a more sagacious well-tried personality, with crows’ feet and technical cliff-climbing skills. And a 15th century chateau that she ran like a free youth hostel.
She would soon become much more famous to the public, with a pronounced American media presence, which was surely helped by her evident wisdom in how to manage people.
But she was not retiring nor patient, either. She was quietly indignant at me in that frémissant way that you get when you live in France long enough.
No anger flared, but more than I was disgusted by the pigeons, she was irritated with me. “What was your name again?”
Clearly these pigeons were a pleasure to her, a joy to wake up to, a set of life-affirming blue-and-mauve gyrating points in the otherwise undifferentiated gray-stob cornfield landscape as far as the eye could see.
She explained to me flatly over cafés there alone before anyone else woke that these pigeons were not the exotic vermin I was used to in cities of the New World, but native pigeons. Pigeons where they came from. Pigeons where they are supposed to be.
Not just that, but they thrive where we thrive, and these pigeons were here for the same rocky cliffs which drew the climbers. We are here for the same reasons. Pigeons and cave people came from this same place, actually.
I have never forgotten it. I lived in New York City for years after that, and I never forgot it. They, like me, were imports, doing the best they could in the artificial canyons of Manhattan.
I remembered them always after that in the fields of their nativity, nesting in the same rocky cliffs that had brought that kind woman and all those wandering young men to that old house in search of a good climb, in search of ourselves. Points of muted color milling around against the barren crust of earth’s mantle.
Even when I saw Venice many years later and someone fed them near me in Piazza San Marco and the pigeons swarmed, I kept a smile, suppressing every natural urge to swat away airborn rats. “Pretty lost souls, lost and flying in circles like me, looking for sustenance. Looking for home, where they belong… Oh look! Crushed corn! Nam nam nam…” Very much like me.
I hope that I am more like my former hostess now and not just passing through. When you live fulltime in France – a circumstance I assure you was as far from my mind as humanly possible lo, those 20 years ago – you get to know pigeons quite well.
They can be sauvage, they can be cultivated as food, and they can be cultivated as sport. You start to talk about them in a speciated way that would make any New Yorker shudder. They are not all the same, but they are all valued.
How well I know now that woman’s pleasure in seeing them in the fields. Like the human specimen in its proper natural range, perhaps, they are not at all the maimed and dirty creatures they become in crowded cities.
Pigeon is in fact on the menu in this region, but not the homing sort, the racing pigeon. Those are called pigeons voyageurs and they are not to eat but for sport. Both types of pigeons are prized, two local specialties of separate realms of life, each to its purpose, and both types have played an enormous role in the history of this place, from the Wars of Religion to WW2. But that is another story.
There is a small pigeonnier museum near us devoted to racing the homing or carrier pigeons voyageurs, and it harbors probably a hundred of them all together. It is very likely the origin of this post, which is really about just one single bird.
We had a visitor this afternoon. I saw her first because she was alone and bright solid white – both unusual for native pigeons in these parts – but then I recognized from her beak, swollen on the top in a crest, that she was a voyageur. In the photo, you can see a blue band on her leg identifying her to her club.
What a gorgeous, graceful bird.
Maybe she was following the river, though I suspect her kind are following a more pervasive magnetism indifferent to terrain.
She stayed with us for a time, strutting along the edge of the roof, 10 meters in the air. I think she was envious of some mounds of corn and seed the chickens were having in the driveway for a snack, but she was shy and cautious.
I hope that later, when the chickens wandered off and we weren’t looking anymore, she finally got all she wanted. And wherever she was going, I hope she comes back soon and often en route, because for me she brought back a flood of happy memories and some satisfaction with life as it has turned out so far. Who ever thought that would come on the wings of a pigeon?