“The Arc of the Sun”

In “The Arc of the Sun,” Issue No. 50 of The Atavist Magazine, David Samuels writes about the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, in which 2,000 pigeons fly 325 miles in the greatest journey of their lives. Blair Braverman, author of “Welcome to Dog World!” Issue No. 49 of The Atavist Magazine, asked Samuels about the extraordinary bond between humans and birds and what his essay uncovered about his own relationship with the meaning of home.

BLAIR BRAVERMAN: There’s a tension between what pigeons seem to represent to enthusiasts—love, companionship, gentleness—and the history of their use for military purposes. After being immersed in this story, how do you reconcile this tension? 

DAVID SAMUELS: Humans can be gentle and feel love, and are magnetically attracted to the idea of home, but are also often employed for military purposes. So if there is a “tension” here, it is one that makes pigeons seem more human. 

In terms of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, there’s a striking contrast between the large amounts of money associated with the race and the poverty that surrounds it. How conscious were entrants of this contrast? Did you feel that the race is truly integrated with its environment, its home? 

The contrast between wealth and poverty exists everywhere in the world, but is as stark in few places as it is in America. Growing up in lower-middle income housing in Brooklyn, I liked to think that I at least knew what poverty looked and felt like—namely, the emergency rooms where my mother worked and people dripped blood from stab and gunshot wounds onto the floor, or the Marcy Houses down the road, where the police were scared to go. I was quickly disabused of that notion once I started to travel widely in other countries, where I saw people living beneath sheets of plastic who didn’t have enough food to eat. It is a fact that, owing in part to the evils of colonialism and apartheid, South Africa is one of the few places where income disparities are even greater than they are in the United States. That said, putting any of the above on pigeon fanciers is silly. Why not golfers? Or people who own laptops or plasma TVs?  What’s most striking about pigeon fanciers as a group is that the thing they really, truly, deeply care most about is pigeons. Everyone wants a winning bird, and that singularity of focus allows people from radically different places to converse and relate to each other as equals in a genuine way, based on their common devotion to these birds and to the sport. I wish the rest of the world could work that way. 

“Pigeons are substitutes for family. They give love.” How does that dynamic play out between the owners of the pigeons and the handlers who spend their time with them?

Affection-wise, the handlers clearly get the better part of the deal at a one-loft race like the Million Dollar, where the birds are closer to avian lotto balls than pets. In the life cycle of a fancier’s loft, a race like the Million Dollar mainly serves to confirm and to advertise the qualities of a particular bloodline, although I did my best to use the drama of a big race to explain the very real emotional connections between fanciers and their birds, so that readers could better understand the sport and the powerful feelings that drive it. Most pigeon fanciers and racers are quiet people who spend enormous amounts of time with the prize birds that they use for racing and the even more valuable pairs that they keep in their lofts for breeding. Men and birds are united by bonds of trust and affection, and by the desire to be at home.

Throughout the story, you are particularly attentive to surroundings and landmarks, nature and livestock and people. How was your reporting process affected by a story so informed by ideas of place?

I’m not a highly abstract thinker. The way I approach the world is tactile and somewhat primitive. I know things by looking at them, touching them, feeling them, smelling them, eating them, or whatever it is that my kind of knowledge requires. Because I know this about myself, I try to write stories about things that I find attractive or abrasive rather than revolting or boring. It felt pretty intense to be in the middle of so many birds, and it was weird to look them in the eye and see their dinosaur ancestors. Their feathers felt like silk, and their wings and chests felt surprisingly strong. I loved driving half the length of South Africa in the back of a buckie over the course of a single day, and it was great to camp out by the river with the Afrikaner men, who were such a specific combination of incredible crudeness and tenderness. To feel any of it, you have to live with people, and see and touch the world that they see and touch. 

Has your time with pigeons shaped your idea of home? What was it like to return home after reporting this story?

It didn’t feel bad to me at all, even though my wife was furious with me for leaving her alone with our six-month-old baby while I followed the arc of the sun. To her, the idea of home is something lucid; it’s where she is and our baby is, and where I am supposed to be. Hearing that made me really happy, even if the sense of continuity and comfort that the idea of home seems to connote sometimes baffles and eludes me.  Read “The Arc of the Sun.”