Project Passenger Pigeon

Lessons from the Past for a Sustainable Future


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Flights of Fancy

One Came Home

Amy Timberlake

"I saw them then -- pigeons... that winged mass drew a shade on the sun. I tell you, it was night at three o'clock in the afternoon. My world snapped into a box. The air staled. A kind of sleet fell from that winged ceiling.

Birds, birds, birds -- a wing, an eye, a beak -- they flew so fast I couldn't pick out one bird. The sky was a feathered fabric weaving itself in and out, unraveling before my eyes. I felt dizzy. I could barely breathe.

Out on the street, people dropped to the ground, arms thrown over their heads. If they screamed, I wouldn't have known, because all I could hear was the sound of those beating wings. Horses reared up and yanked at their hitches. Dogs flattened their ears, put their heads down, and scooted under buggies and porches.

-- from One Came Home (Knopf, 2013)

One Came Home is a western, a mystery and an adventure story all wrapped into one. Set in 1871 southwestern Wisconsin, it's the story of thirteen-year old Georgie Burkhardt. Georgie leaves home in search of her sister whom believes to be alive -- despite the fact that a body has been buried.

As the author, I began writing this story without any idea that I needed passenger pigeons in order to complete it. Early on, there were things that worked: My main character, Georgie Burkhardt, had commenced speaking her mind through my pen. In addition, I'd seen a production of "Taming of the Shrew" and the relationship between those two sisters infuriated me. I would fix Shakespeare! While fixing Shakespeare was a bit beyond my scope, I will never underestimate fury as a way to fuel verbiage. So there, on the page, were Georgie Burkhardt and her sister, Agatha.

Eventually though, the fact that I had no setting became a hindrance. Where in time and space did Georgie and Agatha breathe, move, and have their being? The possibilities were endless. So I scribbled along, hoping for a location to lay my story.

Now besides being a writer, I'm also an amateur birder and an avid reader. Occasionally these two passions intertwine, and I'll find myself reading about birds. This was how -- one day -- I found myself reading A.W. Schorger's The Passenger Pigeon. I picked up the book because of a vague notion of an odd story or two about this extinct species. That was it.

No one expects academic-style histories to read like thrillers, but I tell you, I couldn't put Schorger's The Passenger Pigeon down. I followed my husband around the house -- book in hand -- to read just-one-more description of passenger pigeons. This was history gone science fiction: Billions of birds the size of crows flying in mass migrations so big they blocked out the sun? Pigeon dung falling like sleet? It almost seemed like a mad hoax. Yet, this was an academic book filled with tables, statistics and pain-staking research. In Schorger's tome -- for instance -- it is possible to find out exactly how many times the town of Charleston, Illinois had passenger pigeons migrating through it. Yes, that kind of research. Yet I couldn't stop reading.

And it was in the midst of reading this book that I found my setting. I literally turned a page of A.W. Schorger's The Passenger Pigeon and there it was. In front of my eyes was a map of Wisconsin. To explain, I spent the first eighteen years of my life in northern Wisconsin, so I feel a certain amount of ownership, and in the middle of this map of Wisconsin -- my state -- I saw an enormous . . . well, blob. I squinted. What was that?

The blob turned out to be Schorger's representation of the passenger pigeon nesting of 1871. This nesting covered roughly 850 square miles of the state of Wisconsin. How big is that? 850 square miles would cover over a third of the state of Rhode Island, or three times the land mass of the City of Chicago, or 411,400 football fields. Yes, this 1871 nesting may have been the largest recorded passenger pigeon nesting. Wow -- and I'd never heard anything about it.

Suddenly, I knew that my story would be situated in a town near that enormous nesting. The passenger pigeons would be a living, breathing setting. It would be a setting that would feel like science-fiction -- all those pumping hearts and beating wings! The chaos of those birds would echo the emotional chaos that Georgie feels when her sister is proclaimed dead, and of course, flight is a perfect metaphor for journeys, adventures, and even, a western.

Amy Timberlake is the author of One Came Home (Knopf, 2013) and two other award-winning novels for young adults, including That Girl Lucy Moon. Raised in Hudson, Wisconsin, she now lives in Chicago.

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