Several of the stories from Complicated Gardening Techniques [Julius Singer Press] are based on real events and people. However, many of the details have been doctored, exaggerated, or imagined outright for dramatic effect, and should not be considered fact.
A raccoon is a cruel and sly beast, methodical and clever. It is a mistake to think of the intelligence of humans as uniquely dangerous to their fellow creatures. It’s merely the ability of humans to organize and industrialize their hunt that lends a scalar horror: if raccoons had social and linguistic coordination they would be more than capable of their own bloody massacres on impressive scales. There were coyotes in the mountains, too—on chilly, clear nights, home for winter vacations, I would go sit atop the decaying swing-set and give myself vertiginous, psychedelic thrills listening to them call each other, suspended in the primal vortex between them—but a coyote is harmless by a comparison, a dumb scavenger. We never neutered our cats, since out of each litter of six or seven kittens, one or two would survive: I would awaken late at night to the high, guttural squeal of a small creature in the teeth of a larger one; flick on the outdoor light, and for a moment freeze the two-dimensional, backlit eyes of the raccoon, fat and pinheaded, in a locked stare, before it turned and wobbled into the woods. Nature red in tooth and claw, a pane’s-breadth away. Homesteading in the 1980s had a few things in common with homesteading in the 1780s.
With a mixture of nostalgia, justifiable pride, and savvy branding, my hometown offered a variety of programs to educate the town’s youth in animal husbandry, tomato triage, the baking of bread and berry pies and other skills useful to the youth of three generations ago in their regular life and useful to the youth of my time as a route to blue ribbons at the 4-H pavilion at the Fair each Columbus Day weekend. Not to say there weren’t farming families in Sandwich, there were and are; and all the matte hogs & honking goats, gecko-smooth zucchini and tumorous pumpkins were not only awarded, but priced to consume.
But mine wasn’t a farming family, and I was contrarian by nature in any case, so not for me the pedestrian and utilitarian skills of sustenance. I took up weaving, on a foot-square hand loom; knitting, on homemade needles fashioned of dowels whittled to a dull point and topped with acorn caps and wood glue. (And imagine, if you will, the social ramifications accrued upon a 4th-grade boy in a green velvet beret with a yellow star, over a flowing blonde rat-tail that his sisters enjoyed braiding, who spends his 45-minutes of recess daily sitting against the red-brick school wall, knitting a wool scarf.) So when a retired ex-Marine named Dick offered a tutorial in homing pigeon husbandry to any interested 4-Hers, I was the natural, and sole, taker.
Such tutorial consisted, in full, of a tour of his coop and the handover of a breeding pair. (Also, I learned, somewhat to my shock, the word “cull.”) My father was the kind of craftsman who would never buy a pre-fabricated coop when he could cobble one together himself: he’d already built a low-slung enclosure for our fat, lop-eared rabbit Leo, and it was easy enough to duplicate on a larger and higher scale for our potential flock of chattering, splattering birds.
The coop was in two sections: an enclosed living space in the rear, of rough plywood painted deep red with a latched door for human access. To the right as you opened the door were three shelves, cross-hatched four times to make twelve nesting cubbies; in each, a circular nest of pulped, grey cardboard. To the left, on the ground, two feeding trays; a scoop a day of dried corn and other roughage from the fifty-pound woven-plastic sacks, and a scoop of crushed gravel for their digestion. The left wall was Plexiglas for light, and in the middle above the feed-trays was a sliding door opening into a chicken-wire outdoor area. The whole coop was something in the order of six feet long and four feet high, but on two- or three-foot stilts. Our house was set slightly into the slope of the mountain, so that the south face of the basement was exposed; half of it a cluttered greenhouse overlooking one of my mother’s gardens, half a large, glass sliding door of our own that opened on the rabbit and pigeon coops.
Pigeon husbandry was simple enough: put the breeding pair in the coop and let nature take its course. Once a month, a pair of small eggs, the size of apricots, appeared; usually, nothing would come of it. But soon enough I had nearly a dozen birds, burbling, pecking, flapping, and, primarily, from my point of view, shitting. The daily chore of throwing a scoop of food in the tray before school was nothing compared to the cleaning of the coop. Pigeon shit is no simple excretion; it’s a variegated mass of green, white, brown, solid, liquid that accretes into cement hillocks. You have to hack away at them with a paint scraper, like a miner, releasing the choking ammonia odor of still-warm stool from under the dried crust. Cakes of it, pies of it, held on the scraper blade at arm’s-length and tossed under the coop, where, decades later, the grass still grows visibly greener and fuller.
Within the first week, if the chicks survived, they had to be banded: that is, hold the furred, shivering chick, squeeze together the warm claws of its right foot, and slip it through a small aluminum anklet, impressed with a 4-character code of letters and numbers, by which the grown bird can forever be identified. I tracked the family trees and breeding combinations on a dot-matrix spreadsheet taped just inside the basement door, over a hulking soapstone sink next to the washing machine. With a boy’s hunger for exactitude, each bird was cross-referenced by band number, distinguishing characteristics (two black bands on the wings, white scarring around the eyes), name, and designation: flyer or breeder. Amelia and Satellite, hens, flyers; acquired 5/89, blue wing bars. Bok, two bars; and Reebok, spotted; sons of Zephyr and Cherokee. Lindbergh, cock; Leprechaun, Eclipse, hens; green band, shaded wings, Jemson purebred; AU year 1985. Moss, breeder, born 7/2/90.
The breeders never left the coop. The young chicks, though—as soon as they started flapping and falling out of their cubbies, it was time to start their training. There was a rather clever gate on the front of the coop: a foot-square window cut and framed into the chicken wire, with metal bars hung vertically and free-swinging but two inches longer than the frame was high; so that the bars could swing into the coop but not out; thus the birds could push their way in but not back. So the first element of training the pigeons was to teach them about the gate: to grab them from the sleeping quarters, slot their dry but not scaly legs between the first two fingers of your right hand and soothe their frantic and muscular wings with your left, wrestle them to your breast, and hold them until they stop struggling and the only sign of their confusion is a palpitating heart and the anxious spray of their perfectly round lizard eyes. Walk them around the yard, give them a taste of the world outside the cage, then push them headfirst through the gate, and through the gate again, for a week at least. Once they’ve gotten the idea, simply throw them up in the air, like a bride dispensing a bouquet, and let them find their own way back in.
Usually they would circle for ten minutes or so, then land, cooing and pecking, on the roof of the coop. When your world has been four feet square for months, you prefer it that way. The clever ones would remember the gate; the others needed the help of a butterfly net and another lesson. Next time, take them across the yard, and release. Then a quarter-mile down the driveway. Next week, two miles into town; then the five miles to the town beach, stuttering hearts clutched to your chest during the drive. It’s another way to lose your birds: for every two that know their way, one never comes home; hawks or flawed homing, it’s hard to know. (Bok, Lindbergh, & Eclipse: excised from the family tree with one shaky swipe of a pen.) But they’re always replaced, and the rest return. Sometimes they spend a night and a day between the crown of the house, the chimney, and the roof of the coop, but always, always back in the cage and the nest.
I never actually raced the birds. That was the domain of much older men, retirees and bachelors and widowers and what would I have had to say to them, I who knew nothing but home and they who knew what it meant to have, or not to have, one to return to? But for years I scraped the birds’ shit, discarded the cracked eggs they’d kicked from their nests, buried the stillborn chicks or cold young birds crushed thoughtlessly by their parents.
I think I was in sixth grade the morning I went downstairs to feed the birds and found the carnage. The coop was strewn with feathers, bloody clumps of fluff, and disconnected claws; all dozen birds, wiped out. And here’s the diabolical cleverness of the raccoon: having pushed his way in the swinging gate, he should’ve been trapped. But somehow he deduced that he could hang suspended from the chicken wire with three paws, reach through and pull pack the hanging gate with the fourth, and nose his way back out.
I didn’t have the heart to clean it up. I closed the door, latched it, and went to school. The next morning—Saturday—I got up and unrolled the hose: best to handle this bloody mess with high-pressure water than rolled sleeves and a trowel. Come to open the coop, though, and it was all gone: feathers, corn feed, rotten and cracked eggs, even the claws; the raccoon, nasty, brutish, and fattened, had waddled back for a second night to finish the job at his leisure. I closed the door and never opened it again. The coop sat there in the yard for the entirety of my middle and high school years, slowly rotting and sinking, the shit-fueled dandelions and crabgrass underneath growing up to meet it. I think my father might have finally torn down and discarded it after I left for New York.
I have a friend who has one of those old New England family bibles with the genealogy carefully inked in the front pages, going back three hundred years of Vermonters to Ethan Allen days. It’s funny, considering how much American self-image is tied up in colonial heritage and town-square fantasies, how strange it seems to find that kind of conscious pedigree. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but it seems to me that there aren’t many in my family or circle whose history doesn’t functionally begin in the great 20th-century European migration to the United States. We have a foggy sense of forebears from erased borders; maybe a mayor of Munich, maybe a tobacco smuggler from a long-razed village, melted and reclaimed into a field in what might’ve been or might still be Hungary or Austria or even Russia. Hapsburg mongrels of all classes reborn as American patriarchs before whom no true memory remains: the slim Deutschebank executive, the stout butcher, the Ukrainian refugee churchman, the Greek Navy pilot. The patronymics are truncated and Anglicized, and within two generations we have a haze of foreignness about our names but no ready answer to the question, “Where are you from?” The carnage was as complete, the human predators as rapacious, but the urge to memorialize shed in a frenzy of re-creation. Where was I born, where do I live, where were the parents of my parents from—but the yellowing family tree of the pigeons we leave hung, clatteringly printed and carefully amended in ballpoint, from curled Scotch tape on cement, over the soapstone sink salvaged from some scrapped sap-house; long after all that was left of the pigeons was a six-foot patch of grass grown greener on the remains of their refuse.
Read “Complicated Gardening Techniques” by Franz Nicolay