Monday, September 21, 2015

Pigeons and Salvation

On CBC radio's afternoon program Radio-2-Drive, there's a regular item called "Distant Cousins"that makes a comparison between two similar songs.  The sound-alike factor noted in pop/rock music hits may be the product of intentional copying or mere coincidence, but either way, there's precious little innovation in the genre,  just small adjustments of key, chord, melody, rhythm, and lyrics. Listen long enough and it all begins to sound the same.   As John Lennon said, "There are only a few notes, just variations on a theme."


I had just finished reading John Updike's short story "Pigeon Feathers" when I picked up the August issue of Harper's magazine and read "Leap Day" by Austin Smith.  I couldn't help but notice a strong resemblance between the two works of fiction, and wondered if the editor of Harper's had missed it or perhaps selected the story on the basis that Smith was paying homage to Updike with an updated version of the original.  The Updike classic ( published in The New Yorker magazine August 1961) is a story of a teenage boy pondering the possibility of life after death.  David suffers a sense of hopelessness and angst when he receives no reassurance of eternal life from his parents, the minister of his church, or literature.  He searches for answers, envisions his own demise, tries to imagine oblivion and is overwhelmed with a persistent, black dread.  When his mother, making a request on behalf of Grandmother, asks David to shoot the pigeons that are living in the barn and soiling the antique furniture stored there, he reluctantly agrees.  The assignment turns out to be an empowering experience.

"Standing in the center of the floor, fully master now, disdaining to steady the barrel with anything but his arm, he killed two more that way.  He felt like a beautiful avenger.  Out of the shadowy ragged infinity of the vast barn roof these impudent things dared to thrust their heads, presumed to dirty its starred silence with their filthy timorous life, and he cut them off, tucked them back neatly into the silence. He had the sensation of a creator; these little smudges and flickers that he was clever to see and even cleverer to hit in the dim recesses of the rafters - out of each of them he was making a full bird.  A tiny peek, probe, dab of life, when he hit it, blossomed into a dead enemy, falling with good, final, weight."  

David examines the pigeons before burying them, admires their beautiful feathers and is saved from despair.

" He had never seen a bird this close before.  The feathers were more wonderful than dog's hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird's body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh.  And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.  Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests."  

The last sentence of the Updike story describes a moment of transformation and redemption.

" As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty:  that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."

In the Smith story "Leap Day" the central character Ernie Boettner is about to commit suicide by jumping off a silo on his Illinois farm.  He is devastated by the loss of his same-sex partner Chester and feels unable to express his grief for the deceased lover in a community of homophobic farm folk.  Enter the bird saviour - a pigeon once again - who, like Ernie, is a social outcast.

"On the dome of the silo above and behind him landed a pigeon.  Ernie wondered why it wasn't out there with the others, but the way the pigeon kept ducking its head like a boxer, it struck him that the bird was either ill or retarded.  Realizing he'd never really looked at a pigeon, he looked at this one with something like wonder.  He had worked under their rustling in the barn and cursed their droppings and even once upon a time delighted in blasting them down from the rafters where they liked to line up, warmly cooing, their soft bodies like loaves of bread cooling on a shelf. It wasn't until he met Chester that he had stopped killing them."

"He was moved by the urge to touch this pigeon, the last living thing he could make contact with.  But the bird was perched just too far away for him to reach, although not so far that he couldn't see its eyes, which appeared to be coated with a fine dust. To be held was probably all it didn't know it wanted."  

Ernie descends from the silo after his close encounter with the bird, aware that the pigeon is nothing more than a pigeon, a creature oblivious to his life and death crisis.  Unlike David, he is not enchanted with the bird, but is compelled to change his suicidal course, nevertheless.

"He wished he could tell himself that he had experienced some sort of revelation, but he couldn't, and he had to accept that he had been saved not by an act of grace but by the serene boredom and indifference of a retarded pigeon."   

The story ends with Ernie announcing his homosexuality to patrons in the local bar, Morton Saint's Tap.  His coming out is received with general apathy, as if this dramatic personal declaration wasn't newsworthy information after all.

The pigeon as a symbol of salvation can be traced to biblical text.  My sister the scholar tells me that the Hebrew word "yonah" meaning "dove" also translates as "pigeon."  When Noah sent out a dove from the ark and the bird returned with an olive branch in its beak, it was a sign that the deluge had ended.  Both Updike and Smith introduce an ancient avian icon to carry their plots to conclusion, a winged saviour who restores courage and delivers peace to troubled characters.

Distant cousins may look alike, or sound alike, but they are not twins.   Updike's story moved me with a gradual build-up of tension, the sensitive probing of his main character, the astonishment of killing as a creative act, and the phrase "controlled rapture" as an apt description of intelligent design.  Recycling the framework of the same narrative (with a few twists) Smith creates a story that is dumbed-down by a maudlin protagonist, a handicapped bird and an ending that leaves the reader with the insipid question "Who cares?".



Friday, September 4, 2015

Perfect Pesto

The basil must be fresh from the garden, the olive oil, extra virgin cold-pressed, the pine nuts plentiful and lightly roasted.  Above all, the garlic has to be local, from Norm's.

Pesto-makers who won't settle for Rooster brand garlic (product of China) should make a trip to Cap-Pele for top quality bulbs.  As you approach the village, you can't miss Norm's sign positioned at the side of the road on Acadie, just past Tim Hortons.

Turn at the sign

Drive past Norm's garden and stop at the shed.  If he's not there, honk the horn.

Garlic bulbs drying on the line
Norm on duty in the garlic shed

Making pesto is simple, once you have assembled the right ingredients.

Norm's garlic is large,  juicy and fragrant.  

Peel and slice cloves

Wash fresh-picked basil leaves

Roast pine nuts in the oven at 350 degrees for 5 minutes.  Let them cool before processing.

Olive oil
Product of  wonderful Greece - (they need the revenue!)


Add basil, pine nuts, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil to food processor in small batches, grind to a thick paste.

Pesto!
 I freeze the sauce in small tart tins.  Add cheese at serving time - Parmigiano-Reggiano is traditional.

There is a chill in the air, the geese are heading south and we all know that summer days are dwindling.  In the dead of winter, a little pesto on linguine pasta is enough to revive the soul.

No comparison