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Field Notes
by Kathryn Miles, Editorial Board Member, Terrain.org

Delight and Disorder


Scientists measure entropy in terms of the reversible change of heat in a system. Temperature—particularly a change in temperature—indicates the degree of uncertainty within that system. Uncertainty breeds disorder. Systems do not like disorder.

Neither do we humans.

Woman running in snowWhere I live in rural Maine, meteorological temperature also breeds uncertainty and disorder, albeit for very different reasons. This time of year, while much of the Northern Hemisphere is showing signs of spring, we are still in a deep freeze. Schools close for snow storms; roads and trails become impassable due to ice; humans and their pets grow listless.

We tend, in these days, towards a state of persnickety unrest. The unknowability of conditions from day to day makes planning activities difficult, and so the usual events that mark more temperate weather get deferred. That’s why I was particularly excited to learn that a local running organization was hosting a weekend 5K. Finally, I thought, a chance to race outside.

That Sunday morning, it was 12˚ F in the hour leading up to the start, and even the hardiest of registrants made no move to leave the warm lobby of the YMCA. Eventually, we were herded out by the race director, who said she had a special presentation to make. As it turns out, a beloved member of the local running community had died earlier in the year, and those close to him, who also happened to be the organizers of the event, wanted to honor his memory—a gesture we all found as lovely as it was gracious.

And so we runners—hopping from foot to foot in our thin tights and fleece tops, jacked full of pre-race adrenaline—paid homage to this fallen figure few of us had met, but all of whom appreciated. Running appears a solitary sport, but we runners also believe we are united in a kind of kinship: a bond created by the shared willingness to slide out of warm beds in the pre-dawn dark and to shuffle down icy roadways; a connection forged by the understanding that performance is counted in the audible beats of one’s own heart or the collective gasp of a field of racers working their way up a hill. Such things beget energy and, consequently, create meaning.

So as the organizers offered a eulogy rife with the symbolism of life’s race, we competitors kept at our awkward jig, half appreciative of an individual who could no longer hop with us, and half anxious to release our competition-induced adrenaline and nerves. As we did, the race director produced a heart-shaped wicker basket. She concluded the eulogy with a line about releasing the deceased’s soul into the universe and opened the basket’s lid. Out from the darkness shot a startled white dove that immediately flew to a large white pine tree a dozen yards away. There, it perched on a branch, looking what I was certain was dazed and confused.

As a whole, runners tend to be an environmentally-minded lot. Our daily strides regularly take us through the built and natural environments; our pace and proximity to the ground make it easy to observe what is beautiful and marred in a landscape, or how that landscape changes in otherwise imperceptible degrees from day to day, week to week. This sort of observation creates a strong ethic of care. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that that Sunday morning we ecologically concerned racers did what such people tend to do: we grew concerned in a somewhat sloppy but earnest way. We looked up into the tree and at the bird looking down on us. We asked, now what? We wondered what this animal, clearly out of its own habitat and with no means of shelter or food, would do. We presumed it would starve to death and die. We fretted.

By the time the starting gun was fired, I at least was pretty angry. Angry mostly that someone would choose a symbolic act to honor a friend (a great gesture in theory) that would at best harm or destroy a single bird and, at worst, also create damage to an ecosystem (a lousy gesture in practice). I fed this anger throughout the race, fueling myself with a hearty brand of self-righteous indignation.

When I crossed the finish line, the dove was gone, but the image of it in the tree stayed with me throughout the day. As evening neared and temperatures plummeted, I found myself wishing strange things, like that the thermometer would drop so precipitously that the dove would quickly freeze on its perch, or that it would be summarily eaten by a great horned owl rather than endure weeks of cold and hunger.

Dove flying out of heart-shaped basket at wedding
Photo courtesy Marc Archambault.

As far as I was concerned, the bird’s new predicament embodied all that was flawed about our relationship with the natural world. But that bird clearly meant something different to the race organizers. They wanted a symbol to commemorate—to celebrate—life. And in my sanctimonious investigation, I learned that they, too, were prompted by an environmental ethic. The organizers had first considered a bouquet of helium balloons to honor their departed friend. Upon learning that none were biodegradable, they sought other cleaner options. And that’s how they found Marc Archambault, who owns and operates White Doves of Maine with his wife, Cynthia.

I eventually found Marc, too, after conducting a sloppy web search on indigenous doves in my region and how one procures a white bird for ceremonial release. As it turns out, I was wrong on all sorts of counts. These birds are not released into the wild to invade an ecosystem. Nor are they even really doves. They are instead, Marc proudly explained, homing pigeons.

“White Racing Homers to be exact,” he told me over the phone. “And bred to come back from just about anywhere. These birds know how to figure out their bearings and head home.”

Marc first fell for homing pigeons when he was 13 years old. Already a bird lover, he jumped at the chance to watch a neighbor’s pigeons when the opportunity presented itself. The quietude of the pigeons’ loft was a welcome relief from the bustling apartment life of West Warwick, Connecticut, and Marc soon found himself with his own flock of racing pigeons and a home for them built out of scrap wood and wire in his backyard. Over the ensuing 40 years, Marc’s interest grew. Now he Cynthia keep dozens of the pigeons on their property in rural Maine.

“So as you can see the cycle continues,” said Mark.

That pleases him. And as he explained to me during our phone conversation, he’s eager to see it continue with the public. So far, White Doves of Maine is doing just that. Marc works with his pigeons to help establish their homing instinct, then takes them out in incrementally longer trips so that they can practice their return home. Once he’s sure they’ve found the way, he hires them out for events like weddings and funerals. His clients release the birds and get the emblematic display they’re looking for. The pigeons make their way back to their loft on Marc’s property, where they get to roost and enjoy the comforts of domestic life. And Marc gets to share his love for their navigational talents with an increasingly wider audience.

It’s the symbolic value of these birds that really keeps the Archambaults in business. The couple offers purchasable packages based on this significance: one dove to represent the soul making its way towards heaven; two to suggest the new life of a husband and wife; three for the Christian trinity; 12 for a choir of angels; 21 for a similarly numbered gun salute.

“Wait,” I said. “You use the bird of peace to represent the discharge of military weapons?”

“Oh, yes,” Marc said. “That’s a pretty powerful symbol, don’t you think?”

It’s also one that plenty of people have employed.

To keep up with all the inquiries, Cynthia has prepared a packet of information for people interested in using their birds. These materials explain that they offer bamboo or heart shaped wicker baskets for the dove’s release, as well as antique iron pedestals for those who like the symbolism of displaying a caged bird before it takes flight. The package also contains a well-researched account of comparative cross-culture symbols ranging from Egyptian to Slovakian to Hindu traditions. It also explains a little bit about the science behind their birds’ impulse to return to the roost.

“This is what I really want people to know,” Marc told me at the end of our conversation. “These birds don’t just end up in the wild, trying to find shelter or starving to death. They can fly home hundreds of miles, and return to their loft. They usually beat me back there.”

But what about my dove? The one that flew up into the tree, looking a little confused and watching us all from the branch.

“I guess that depends upon who you ask,” said Marc. “The race organizers thought maybe it symbolized their friend wanting to watch the start of one last race.”

And Marc?

“I have a bunch of pine trees on my property. I think maybe the dove thought the one at the race looked like home.”

But, Marc added, the bird figured out soon enough that home was actually 45 miles away. And by the time he and Cynthia returned from the race, the pigeon was snoozing in its loft.

Arrow pointing direction in snowScientists still don’t know exactly how homing pigeons like Marc’s find their way back home. They theorize that this skill could emanate from a pigeon’s ability to translate the sun’s rays or earth’s magnetism into a set of directions. Or that perhaps they build a memory map of landmarks and other symbols. But these are all just guesses, really. When it comes right down to it, the inner workings of a bird’s brain is pretty much a mystery.

We do know a fair amount about the human brain, however. And what neuroscientists tell us is that the frontal lobe of Homo sapiens is uniquely suited for symbol making. What’s particularly interesting about this for someone like Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky is the fact that our brains love to confuse the metaphoric and the literal. In fact, that’s where symbols derive their real power. Sapolsky wrote about this phenomenon in a New York Times editorial last year. There, he explains that the reason we feel nauseated over the sight of a moral injustice or soothed by a symbol of home is because the brain responds to these stimuli the same way it would when presented with an actual mouthful of something like rancid meat in the case of the former, or the embrace of a loved one or the comforts of hearth in the latter. Metaphoric and literal are, as far as the frontal lobe is concerned, interchangeable.

This is a good thing when it comes to creating meaning. Because our brains fail to distinguish, we can use symbolic shortcuts without losing the power of what they represent. A flashing red light on the highway causes our heart rate to spike as if we had seen or nearly avoided an accident. A bouquet of flowers (or biodegradable balloons) can also cause that heart to beat faster, albeit for very different reasons. No wonder, then, that the words “signify” and “significance” share the same etymological thread. Or that their Latin cognate means “energy” as plainly as it does “meaning” or “force.” Just like machines, we too measure our systems in terms of power and potential chaos.

The symbols that we choose to avoid entropy are no less potent than their signifying power. Consider, for instance, the Ndembu people of southern central Africa. Their word for symbol is “chijikijilu,” which quite literally means a mark on a tree. More substantively, writes anthropologist Victor Turner in The Forest of Symbols, the term means “a blaze or landmark, something that connects the unknown with the known.” This has pragmatic value for the Ndembu, who have traditionally occupied the densely forested area of the Central Zambezian Miombo woodlands. There, a symbol etched on a tree is the only thing showing the way home. And where one places that symbol can mean the difference between life and death. The chijikijilu, explains Turner, must be always located on the boundary between the known and the unknown. Blazes in your home territory are of little help: they simply tell you what you already know. Blazes well away from home are of equally little use: they merely tell you that you are somewhere you don’t know. But a blaze in sight of home extends that known region. And one blaze in sight of another continues to do so, enlarging the circumference of what we know and, ultimately, creating an increasingly elaborate conduit between where we are and where we want to be.

That’s not so different than a homing pigeon learning how to get its bearings. Nor is it so different than what we do every time we seek to make or extend meaning in our world.

Plenty of wonderful, serendipitous things happen when we give ourselves over to randomness and chance. I happily stand with the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick in saying that there is much delight in disorder. And if it is indeed true that the universe trends that way, seeking through the release of energy to establish first chaos and then uniform inertia, our wings will surely melt if we try too hard to fly from this state of affairs.

But while we are here, functioning as individual, social, and species-driven systems, we are well served, I think, in doing what we can to quell some of that chaos. To, instead, make meaning out of our state. Symbols and metaphors offer a particularly useful way to do so. And in an age of political scission, debates over the soundness of climate science, and uprisings in the name of freedom, there is no better time to forge this meaning: to reconsider the symbols that bring significance to our lives and motivate us to stand up in the face of disorder.

What the emblems of this new age will be is a mystery to me. Perhaps they will include the image of a lone pigeon in a pine tree. Or a group of underdressed runners watching it with rapt attention and concern. Probably it is a symbol about which I don’t yet know. But I do know the choices we make will matter, and that mustering the collective energy we need to tackle the issues at hand will depend upon the resonance of those symbols and our attention to them. And that through them we may eventually find our way home.


Kathryn Miles is professor of environmental writing at Unity College and editor-in-chief of Hawk & Handsaw: The Journal of Creative Sustainability. She is also the author of Adventures with Ari (Skyhorse/W.W. Norton) and All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship, which will be published by Simon & Schuster later this year.
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