Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Birds

It was the summer of 1969, and I was in California with my aunt and uncle at their home in Camarillo, a Ventura County community about an hour northwest of Los Angeles.  Camarillo was a pretty town with a gentle Mediterranean climate -- it was possessed of an unassuming, natural beauty.  On any given summer morning, I would awaken to the smell of fresh eucalyptus and the soft cooing of hundreds of pigeons.  My uncle, a Methodist minister, had raised pigeons since his teens.  During his tour of duty in World War II, he had even raised pigeons to be used as message carriers.

Back in 1969, I was still bicycle bound, and generally by eight or nine in the morning, I had made my daily pilgrimage up Anacapa Drive to a small parking lot outside the local elementary school.  From that lot, I could look down on the entire Pleasant Valley. In those days, development hadn’t quite made it over from Thousand Oaks and past the Conejo Grade, and all the houses in town were forties to sixties vintage, some marked by creative scrollwork and soft pastel colors.   Landscape plantings were generally tasteful, and in a few cases, somewhat extravagant.  The fog would burn off by about 9:30, and then, looking down over the valley, I would marvel at the beauty and peacefulness of it all.   A great time and place to be a kid.

Some days, my uncle and I would leave the placid neighborhood for a little bit of adventure.  Among the many varieties of pigeons provided for by my uncle were the racers, who had to be trained in the fine art of flying back home from afar.   Getting up well before sunrise ("before day", as my uncle always said), we would place all the birds fit to fly into four to six specially made wooden crates, each with a little trap door for inserting or removing the unwilling participants, and then we would load them into the bruised but reliable old white Ford F-100 pickup and clamp the tailgate shut.

Most days, we headed toward the community of Ojai, then through the backcountry to Goodenough Road, which ran alongside a lively little mountain stream leading into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary (in those days, only a handful of condors remained).  We would hop down from the truck, pull out the crates, and then give the birds a couple of minutes to acclimate to their surroundings before opening the carriers.

Once the birds were released, they circled the immediate area for several minutes, and then they headed off in the general direction of home.  Some birds were leaders, others were followers, and still others were stragglers.  There was, of course, no way that my uncle and I could ever consistently reach the house before the birds, so we took our time getting home.  Sometimes we would stop for a cold, frosty glass of A & W root beer at the little stands on the fringes of the smaller towns.  On other mornings, we might stop and chat with a perfect stranger out doing some morning field work at the Julius Goodman egg farm.

As the birds became progressively more experienced navigating the route home, we would take them farther away.  Eventually, by the end of the summer, we were heading up into the coastal mountains.  A favorite release site was Mount Pinos, with an elevation somewhere between eight and nine thousand feet.  This was truly wild, spectacular country, with crisp, clean air and almost ethereal light and color.  I always felt as if maybe we were just a bit closer to heaven.

There are several theories addressing how pigeons return home.  At least one of these involves the birds’ ability to map spectral contours, following patterns of visible and invisible light.  Now, looking back on summers with the birds, it occurs to me that on those crystalline mornings, the world looked so pure and bright that I could almost see that light myself.