Pigeon People – ‘Are You Happy?’ Ecoreflections #1

‘Rats with wings’ – a common speciesist phrase insulting pigeon-kind. Poor rats weren’t in our March 2023 ecotheatre play ‘Are You Happy?’, but pigeons were, so I’m here to come to their defence. These beautiful birds surround us every day in our cities, towns, villages and countryside. Perhaps it’s because they’re so prolific that they’re underappreciated, and often looked down upon. Improving and enhancing our relation with these particular other-than-humans can have a profound effect on our daily lives.

I will bring to my aid Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), one of the most impressive geniuses of the 20th century. He played a vital role in many inventions and discoveries which shape how we live today (wireless technology, x-rays, radio, robotics, neon & fluorescent lights, and more). From his book ‘My Inventions & Other Writings’, it’s apparent that Tesla was driven mostly by a love of Nature (which he sought to learn about), and a love of humanity (which he sought to help).

During our current global energy crisis, it’s worthwhile noting that this pioneer of electricity dreamt of and worked towards the idea that basically-free sustainable energy could be harnessed for all people on Earth as a step towards world peace. Although that dream has not yet been realised, it’s a worthy dream to keep alive. He did dream of a global wireless instantaneous-communication network with the same purpose in mind – this then seemingly impossible dream of course did eventually manifest as the Internet that we know today. Many of his ideas were far ahead of his time. For example, he was already in favour of moving away from burning up physical materials such as coal and wood as power sources because of the waste and environmental harm they cause.

Anyway, pigeons… Tesla was a supremely sensitive soul who described and demonstrated senses stronger than most of us can fully imagine (in sight, hearing, mental visualisation, reason and intuition). His final decades of life were spent living humbly in a New York hotel room with pigeons as his main companions. He’d spend hours each week feeding them in the park, and regularly took any injured ones back to his room to nurse to health.

Nikola Tesla riding a pigeon automaton

Personal biographer John J O’Neill quotes the following from Tesla:

“I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them, for years; thousands of them, for who can tell — But there was one pigeon, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I would know that pigeon anywhere.

“No matter where I was, that pigeon would find me; when I wanted her I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. She understood me and I understood her. I loved that pigeon.

“I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. When she was ill, I knew, and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life.

“Then one night as I was lying in my bed in the dark, solving problems, as usual, she flew in through the open window and stood on my desk. As I looked at her, I knew she wanted to tell me she was dying. And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes—powerful beams of light. It was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.

“When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life, I knew my life’s work was finished.”

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but let’s suspend our usual judgements for a moment and remember that Tesla clearly didn’t experience reality the same way that most of us do. This should be considered in his relationship with pigeons.

When I share this story with people, they are quick to think of Tesla as ‘crazy’, or to get squeamish at the thought of all the pigeon-poop he would’ve had to clean up. But perhaps what we often think of as ‘crazy’ is simply just ‘different’.

Examining this more closely, Tesla was an unbelievably productive member of society who had a deeper understanding of the workings of reality than almost 100% of us could ever hope to have. The proof is in the pudding of the effectiveness of his creations.

Furthermore, despite being perceived as eccentric, he was perfectly cognisant and eloquent to the very last – he never lost his wits. Maybe, just maybe he was on to something when it comes to pigeons.

Maybe flying around us every day are intelligent creatures, capable of individuality and two-way bonding with members of other species. Maybe they can be beautiful enough to bring tears, awe and ecstasy to one of the 20th century’s most profound souls. Maybe we’ve had our blinkers on when it comes to pigeons.

Tesla is in good company, as Charles Darwin wrote the following to his soon-visiting geologist friend Charles Lyall in 1855 (four years before devoting much of the first chapter of On the Origin of Species to pigeons):

“I will show you my pigeons! Which are the greatest treat, in my opinion, that can be offered to a human being.”

          Ponder all this when you next see the mysterious purple-green tint of a pigeon’s neck, when you hear the satisfying flap of their take-off, or when one coos hello to you as you sit at a train station. You don’t always have to reply with a ‘shoo’.

Shot from ‘Ghost Dog (1999)’, a film about a pigeon-obsessed African-American samurai mafia hit-man

          In most human languages, and in biology, doves are merely ‘white pigeons’. Yet, we tend to react to and think of doves entirely differently from other pigeons purely because of their more positive symbolism.

          Doves are messengers of peace, good news and new, better life. This is exemplified in Abrahamic religions. A dove lets Noah and his ark know that there’s still land to live on after the great Flood by returning to the ship with an olive branch. In Christianity, the Holy Spirit of God is also associated with the dove, and Jesus tells his followers to ‘be as kind as doves (and as wise as serpents)’.

We open ourselves to a moment of extreme hope and happiness when we meet doves in-person. Our lives would be enhanced if we could do the same when we come across pigeons with more common plumages.

It’s worth noting here some positive associations of pigeons more generally. As with Noah’s dove, pigeons have been helping humans by carrying messages across vast distances for at least 3,000 years, with ancient Syria and Persia having especially wide and complex networks of messenger pigeons. Until the 1837 invention of the telegraph, pigeon networks were probably the closest thing we had to the Internet, the network of instant-communication closing vast geographical distances that Tesla hoped for.

These pigeon-sent messages will have included millions of letters between lovers, as well as life-saving memos in times of war & disaster. This considered, pigeons likely made possible many existing human lineages, perhaps even your own.

We all know about homing pigeons, and a pigeon’s still unexplained ability to navigate ‘home’ across incredible stretches of land that the pigeon hasn’t seen before.

For humans, ‘home is where the heart is’. This phrase is so often used that it has sadly become cliched, causing us to miss the magnificent and useful truth that it contains (the same is true for many cliched idioms, I recommend taking notice of this). This truth was aptly symbolised in our play ‘Are You Happy?’ where the lost humans had to find their way through humanity’s collective heart (physically represented by Cluny Hill Hotel, home to many members of the Park Ecovillage community over many decades) in order to shimmer once again.

A framed pigeon picture in my Cluny Hill room during my Findhorn Foundation Experience Week

We can take inspiration from pigeons’ ability to consistently re-find home by returning time and time again to our own hearts. If you are living a heart-centred life, you will always feel at home. If you follow your heart’s truest desires, if you listen closely to your heart, you will be like the pigeon heading in the right direction towards your spiritual home.

Given all this, what do you think ‘home’ might feel like? Take a moment to imagine this feeling. Feel into it. As Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz (1939), ‘there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home’.

To conclude, let us return to doves once again. The Latin word for dove is ‘Columba’. This is where Christopher Columbus gets his name from (‘Christ-bearing dove’). Obviously, humans already discovered the Americas thousands of years before Columbus did, with the likes of the Mayans, Aztecs, Incas and Shoshone creating wonderfully intricate civilizations that were unfortunately greatly harmed by post-Columbus Europeans. And of course, Columbus wasn’t even the first modern European to stumble upon the Americas as some rambunctious Vikings bet him to it. But it is still uncanny that the person who essentially set the ball rolling for Afro-Eurasia discovering the Americas en-masse (with many millions making new lives there) mirrored mythology’s most famous dove in finding new land against the odds by traversing a huge area of water.

Another human-dove from history is St. Columba. He brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland by sailing to Iona and starting an abbey there.

There’s a lot to a name, be mindful when naming your newborns. Hearing it every day and identifying with it, a person’s name vibrates throughout their life, having a noticeable effect on their journey and their Being. A prime example is me being so bloody obsessed with pigeons. I confess, all ‘Callums’ are named after the Irish St. Columba (‘Colm’ in Gaelic). This might explain my unusual bias towards and fixation on these immensely underrated birds. In a funny synchronicity, England were playing Columbia (same Latin-root ‘Columba’) in the 1998 FIFA World Cup at the very moment this here Callum was delivered by an English doctor.

If you’re somehow still hungry for more pigeon meditations after nearly 2,000 words, I recommend this BBC Wildlife article that describes (among other things) how pigeons were an essential link in making possible modern civilisation as our ancestors moved through agricultural revolutions.  You can also listen to the T7D-curated pigeon playlist above. Let me know if reading all of this inspires any future odd encounters with pigeons for you (that’s the hope). Keep an eye out for future ruminations on our other ‘Are You Happy?’ characters: Water, Dandelion, Spider, Snail and Broken Angel. Until next time, keep on shimmering.

(Written by Callum Bruce Bell)

AD PACEM, ALIS VOLAT PROPRIIS – ‘Towards peace, she flies with her own wings’