Pigeons, Walking, Writing, Oh My!

Author: Deyana Atanasova 

If you’ve been referring to pigeons as “the rats of the sky,” you might want to reconsider your perspective.  

That’s precisely what accomplished author and professor Kathleen Rooney asks readers to do when reading her newest novel, Cher Ami and Major Wjittlesey, which is told from two perspectives: an army soldier in WWI and a messenger pigeon. If you want to hear about it more in-depth and better than I could ever explain it, you can learn more about it here from Rooney herself. 

(The cover of Rooney’s newest novel, Cher Amie and Major Whittlesey)

Yet, even without reading the novel, we can all be a bit more conscientious of how we regard and interact with the world, including what we take for granted and what we remember.

In an Honors Speakers event on Thursday evening, January 21st, right after the inauguration, several students from the Honors Program hopped on a Zoom call with author Kathleen Rooney and had the opportunity to hear a live reading and engage in a Q&A. The topics talked about ranged from writing processes, walking as an adjacent activity to writing, buckets of historical knowledge, the publishing industry, and of course–really cool pigeon facts.

For example, did you know that pigeons can actually recognize the alphabet and learn upwards of 60 words? Or that when looking at a group of people, they can actually discern us as individuals? Meanwhile, chances are, if we were to see the same pigeon two days in a row, we would never really be able to tell them apart.

The moral of the story is, we take things for granted. And yes, that’s a truism, but if you asked me whether I would miss the sight of a pigeon under the Adams/Wabash stop by the Brown Line before quarantine, I’m not sure I would have understood the gravity of the question.

And by the way, this conversation doesn’t even include the whole “pigeons aren’t real” discourse which, quite frankly, seems like a silly joke but becomes quite harmful when unpacking the deep double standards of surveillance. Dr. Eric Anthamatten’s philosophical piece “Visibility is a Trap: Body Cameras and the Panopticon of Police Power unpacks this much more (shout out to Dr. Fanny Söderbäck’s HON 105 Philosophical Inquiry class for featuring this reading). So, what does this have to do with pigeons again? Well, you might have also seen all of those Bernie memes with the mittens. There was one in particular where Bernie was photoshopped sitting in front of a bunch of pigeons, giving off that Michael Scott feeding the pigeons in the park vibe. And in fact, there’s even a meme generator where you can photoshop Bernie sitting anywhere in Google Maps Street View.

An unphotoshopped photo of Bernie at the inauguration

I found myself becoming bothered on social media during and after the inauguration as I was trying to come to terms with the idea that yes, the new administration would mean undoing a lot of harm.  But it is not a like a carrier pigeon flew in from a beam of light in the sky with the one-step policy solution to battle systemic racism, the prison industrial complex, implementing universal healthcare, mitigating the pandemic, etc.

To borrow a pun from Rooney on the night of the live reading, I do not advocate for the “pigeonhole” idea that now we can go back to “normalcy” and compartmentalize politics. We need to keep learning, unlearning, and re-learning. We simply cannot forget not just the past four years but the underlying centuries of oppression that led up to it.

If you’ve made it this far into this post, you’ll know that we landed pretty far from where we took flight. But I think that’s part of the beauty in writing, in that you can meander and walk around, connecting checkpoints and making meaning.

If anything, maybe the next time you see or think of a pigeon, you’ll sign a petition or learn more about the local work being done by heroes in their communities right now. Maybe, you’ll end up picking up a copy of Rooney’s novel and reading it, savoring every clever line of and about the dynamics of language. Or, you’ll look up the slightly unsettling amount of figures of speech out there related to pigeons.

In the Q&A portion of the live reading event, Rooney also said something along the lines of “usually, stuff finds a home.” I forget the context given my rushed, chicken pigeon scratch handwriting, but I hope that in some way, shape, or form, you got something from this piece and that it has found a home, albeit even a fleeting one. P.S. In other (un)related news, a pigeon was spared from the death sentence recently in Australia. Lots to unpack there, too.

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