Longform Escape & Corrections


There are two dynamic illustrations in this piece by David Samuels that cannot be replicated here, but are worth visiting the website of The Atavist for, so the images above and below are placeholders. Anyway, the words are the thing so I take a paragraph from near the end as an example of why to read this:

…In the 1970s in Brooklyn, where I grew up, pigeons were everywhere, which is probably why I am here. Some of my earliest gray-scale memories include pigeons, which fluttered and occasionally nested on the windowsill of the first place I was aware enough of to call home, a housing project near the Brooklyn Bridge built for working families like mine. There was a bona fide pigeon coop on the roof of a building nearby, like in the famous scene from On the Waterfront. Sometimes I could see a man on the roof waving a flag, which in my imagination was red but in fact could have been any color. The pigeons he guided back to their loft every night were a promise of safety that New York City in the 1970s was obviously unable to keep, which is why my parents moved to the suburbs, where the birds in the trees outside my window twittered and cooed in foreign tongues that signified nothing…

I am not surprised that this is the article on their website that I gravitated to. The author wrote an item in the New Yorker at a time when I was just completing many years of work in Montenegro and Croatia, and I knew the landscape he was describing well, and still he brought the place alive for me in a way that living there had not. He does not need photos, gifs, or other illustrations to make his words dance better. And in this piece he does something even more magical, providing a correction for me.

Seven years in south India had at least one unexpected effect on me, and it is embarrassing. I developed a passionate dislike for pigeons. Pigeons caused continuous problems in one of the properties we developed and managed, an urban location pigeons loved as much as people. And pigeons express their love in messy ways, so they became my bane. At our home, pigeons would coo on the window sill and I remember that at the time I posted this, which was peak pigeon problem, my enthusiasm for conservation was red hot but I had an unwanted, guilty ability to imagine why passenger pigeons disappeared. Reading David Samuels just now, I have snapped out of that.

pigionssa-1436823680-87The Atavist allows a few free views before their paywall goes up, and this is a good way to determine whether it is worth your subscription. Another sample from this piece follows and it illustrates why the author is one of the greats of longform:

Pigeons are substitutes for family. They give love. They make pigeon fanciers happy, even if no one understands exactly how they find their way home. They appear in the eighth chapter of the Bible, returning to Noah’s outstretched hand. They facilitated human communication over long distances before the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet.

In addition to their critical role on the battlefields of World War I, pigeons also played an important part during World War II, especially in anti-Nazi movements in occupied Europe, which is still within the living memory of some of the older fanciers here, and is therefore one of several hot subjects of conversation at the hotel bar after the day’s basketing is done. The most affecting of the many stories I am told is recounted by an 85-year-old American fancier, Dr. Alfred Piaget, who flies Tournier pigeons in New Jersey and is a distant relative of the pioneering child psychologist Dr. Jean Piaget. He heard the story firsthand during a trip to Belgium to visit members of the Cattrysse family, who live in a small Flemish town called Moere. There, in a simple farming community of 1,200 inhabitants, the Cattrysse brothers, Gerard and Oscar, painstakingly built what by 1939 was widely regarded as the single greatest pigeon loft in the world.

According to an account they gave to a pigeon fanciers’ magazine after the war, the Cattrysse brothers were instructed in the art of breeding and flying pigeons by the great Belgian fancier Charles Vanderespt, who between 1923 and 1935 won an astounding total of 4,635 prizes, including the international prize in the Bordeaux Belgium-Holland race of 1935, which was famous for its dreadful weather. In 1923, the brothers read a news article in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir about a man named Pierre Decnop, from Anderlecht, who had won the three top prizes in a race from Dax. They purchased some of Decnop’s hens and began crossing them with Vanderespt cocks, but the pigeons they bred showed no interest in flying, even after three years in the loft, which ran the length of the attic above the warehouse of the brothers’ grocery store in town. Still, there was no question about the quality of the Vanderespt cock, which, coupled with a different hen, had bred Goliath, a famous prewar long-distance  racer.

In 1936, the brothers purchased a magnificent blue hen from a fancier in Gistel and paired her with a checkered Vanderespt cock. Among the offspring was an outstanding blue cock named Grote Blauwen, who became the sire of the Cattrysse line, which was quickly recognized as one of the greatest in all of Europe.

Four years later, the Germans occupied Moere, and the Cattrysse brothers’ houses in town were commandeered as quarters for German officers. The brothers and their families moved into what had been their garage. According to the laws of the occupation, all pigeons in the area had to be turned over at once to the German authorities, who feared that the birds could be used to carry messages to and from resistance groups. Gerard and Oscar were permitted to continue caring for their pigeons under the direct surveillance of the German commander. Other families in Moere refused to turn over their birds and continued caring for them in secret, despite increasingly draconian punishments as the war dragged on and the local resistance linked up with the British, becoming a major thorn in the side of the German occupier.

A few weeks after the Normandy landing in 1944, the local German commander came to the brothers and informed them of an urgent new directive he had received from Berlin. “My orders are to kill every bird and cut their legs off,” he told the brothers. But the German officer had fallen in love with the birds, and with the Allied armies now moving inland from the beachhead, he also may have known that the war was lost. So he came up with a solution that would allow him to present his superiors with the required number of pigeon legs.

“Look, you and I both know that you have a lot of friends hiding their birds,” the commander told the brothers, at least in Alfred Piaget’s version of the story. “If by tomorrow night you can give me thirty to forty birds, I will spare thirty or forty of your birds.”

The famous Cattrysse line would be saved—if the brothers could convince their neighbors to substitute their own birds. That night, and through the next afternoon, Gerard and Oscar Cattrysse made the rounds on their heartbreaking errand, searching for substitute birds for the slaughterer’s knife. The brothers knew what they were asking of their neighbors. They also knew that they had something valuable to offer in return.

“If you can find it in your hearts, then we will breed you young ones,” they offered the local farmers. In return for handing over the birds that they had nurtured in secret throughout the war years, they would gain a share in one of the greatest bloodlines in Europe. The brothers returned before dusk with several dozen birds, whose throats were slit by the German officer, who fled town shortly afterward. Thanks to the willingness of the people of Moere to sacrifice their own birds on behalf of their neighbors’ superior bloodline, Cattrysse pigeons play a part in pigeon racing to this day.

Read the whole article here.

One thought on “Longform Escape & Corrections

  1. I laughed at your confession that you didn’t particularly like pigeons! “The owner of the first-place pigeon receives $150,000 ” – That got my attention! It’s a very interesting article. For those who aren’t fond of pigeons, sometimes seeing through another’s eyes does indeed provide a neutral option!.

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