Thursday, May 10, 2007

The human position

When I lived in Wales, we kept a little kit of Birmingham rollers in a dovecote behind the pebbledashed house. Dumpy, short-faced, pocket-sized pigeons in shades of bronze and pink, with white flights and feathered toes. They soon became part of the fabric of the house, roosting on windowsills, whiffling up from the porch roof, pootling about on the ground. One spring morning I walked out into the gusty, drizzly welsh air, and looked up to see one going into a roll.

The nature of roller flight is fascinating. I don't know very much about pigeons, so I am ready to be corrected on this. But what I remember is that rollers have some genetic dooberry of the inner ear that makes them imbalance, send their heads over their backs so they cease flying and drop, somersaulting, towards the ground, before the functional fit stops and they right themselves back into normal flight. I’ve always found the sight of a rolling pigeon strangely disturbing: it looks too much, to me, as if they’ve been shot. But perhaps that’s why they are here. As if the whole point of this artificial selection was to show pigeons cheating death, day after day after day. Pigeon-breeders reinscribing a defeat over mortality: little feathered souls falling, righting, and winning. One in the eye for god.

What I didn’t know then was that part of the art of breeding roller pigeons is to ensure you produce birds that don’t roll too deep. This bird was not one of these. All the other youngsters were fine, but this one was wrong. It rolled down and hit the concrete drive, right at my feet. Hit with an audible smack like a handclap, bounced, hit the ground again, and went into a fit of agonised wingbeats, beak opening and closing, gasping for air. And then it was still. Bronze feathers drifted south across the drive. I picked it up. Its neck was broken; its head lolled. It was warm as new-baked bread. A soft, dead thing. How strange it was.

On Sunday, it happened all over again, but the pigeon was a man. It was a windy late afternoon: smoke blown right across the crowds from the marker canister in the arena suffused the Falconers Fair with the dusty, orange glamour of a desert market. Heads and hawks and stalls and dogs and smoke. And then I turned to see a man falling. I don’t know why I turned. Everyone I spoke to afterwards had done the same: even if they hadn’t been paying any attention to the skydiving display, they turned, as if the horror had picked up the whole crowd and turned its head.

This poor man; his chute had been caught by a downdraught—the arena was at the base of a vicious lee slope—and it collapsed, just like that. And he fell, impossibly fast, towards the ground. Hit the short grass of the tiny arena with the worst sound I have ever heard. Everything went still. There was smoke, silence, and then a man, running towards the motionless man on the grass, and then suddenly everything happening; ambulances, helicopters; a scene from a misremembered war movie. It was the most ghastly thing I have ever seen. They raised curtains of parachute silk to shield the scene. They looked like beach windbreaks. A woman from St John’s ambulance team walked away, crying.

I am so, so sorry for this man, and for his team-mates, and for his family, and for the crowds. I stood there with hot tears in my eyes, and remembered the pigeon. And stood there in disbelief for a long while as the announcer on the PA started, crazily, in his clipped RP, to announce the prizes in the raffle across the silence. Auden to a T. I still can’t quite cope with the fact that the skydivers called themselves the Icarus Display Team.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W.H. Auden.

26 comments:

Matt Mullenix said...

This is an irreverent comment considering your subject, but that was a beautiful post Helen. I'm sure a wider audience would appreciate your writing on this and hope you can share it somehow in the local press?

It occurs to me that a lot of what you write constitutes a new (and improved) kind of journalism.

pluvialis said...

Hi Matt. Thanks for saying that. I didn't know whether to post. Thought it might be irreverent, or offensive, to do so. But I'm glad I did, now. How are you doing? Before the horror at the fair, I must tell you that I kept meeting old falconer friends of mine and telling them that I was getting a goshawk this summer. All of them seemed to think this was an idiotic idea. "Naaaah...get a merlin. What do you want a gos for? You'll go insane, and it will be a nightmare".
Is it goshawks, or is it a particularly English understanding of goshawks? They don't seem to have this reputation anywhere else in the world, do they?
I'm getting nervous...

Matt Mullenix said...

Hell no. Don't listen to them. The goshawk is second only the Harris! :-)

Actually, I've never flown a goshawk. But I've had the pleasure of seeing several at work and think they are amazing. They are not despised here by any means. Everyone respects them, but with the HH around, I suspect their use here is waning.

I am also partial to a male HH for anything I could catch around here. And it's too hot besides. But had I good duck slips for a shortwing (and a cold climate fly in) I'd like to have one. I plan to someday.

I'm very excited about your goshawk season and especially about your writing project. You will succeed at both. I hope you'll blog it as you go along.

indigoGlyph said...

I don't think any right-thinking person would call your post irreverent. Faced with such suffering, who wouldn't need to connect it previous and shared experiences? And who better than Auden to connect with. Good luck with the gos, btw. I envy you - and Matt his harris, but there's just something very 'other' about accipiters.

Steve Bodio said...

e Gosses: call me nuts, but I fail to see that they are 'bad' (now Cooper's , that is another thing!) I am probably flying a Harris this year but (sorry Matt!) if a Gos were available I prefer them. They ARE harder and many demand constant attention, especially in the first year, but they are 'fair'. If you have the time they can be very tame and steady-- have you seen the Fox film of them in China? I am not that good but almost all I have had are fine, and the one that wasn't liked ME-- it just took a dislike to Libby!

Thoughts:
1) Hoods are not necessarily good-- they don't get tamer wearing one. Try exposing it to everything in the first couple of weeks. Boxes for transport.
2) Females generally calmer than males.
3) Keep it as close as you can. Preferably perch it in your rooms.
3) Enter early and fly often.

I should put you in touch with John Burchard. (Email me). He has some fine advice on early handling.

More when I think of it.

It will be engrossing and you will enjoy it!

Chas S. Clifton said...

We have art and poetry to help us cope with such experiences, to put them into a mental frame that reminds us of, if you'll forgive the phrase, the eternal verities. As Auden said, "But for him it was not an important failure."

But then you have made your own poem with the story of the roller pigeon too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen,

Long time no hear! Old intern Magnus from Sweden here. I've been secretely admiring your writing from afar for a while, but decided to come out of the closet to comment one this one.

I'm sure the readers will take your post the right way. I found it to be a beautiful if bitter-sweet little story about a tragic incident. I can only add that, however "clichéy" it might sound, I'm pretty certain this man died doing what he loved the best, and that the possibility of death through falling was something he had already thought about, but dismissed in the pursuit of his passion. (My deepest sympathies goes to his family though, who perhaps didn't even share his passion in the first place...).

On a completely different note, I wish you a pleasant journey with your goshawk. Exciting stuff!
Can't wait to read about your experiences manning, training and flying it. I'm certain you will do the breeder proud anyhow. Cheers!

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