I stared at the page, knowing what I wanted to say, but unable to find a story, the right words, or some way to give form to the nebulous idea. I had written a few sentences and deleted them just as quickly. They weren’t right somehow. Eventually, I took the hint, closed the page and watched, once again, the video of my first waltz in decades. If I couldn’t write, at least I could smile.
Eventually, I decided to write about pigeons instead of what I’d had in mind. Not as odd an idea as it may seem. Stuart and I had been talking about them a while ago as he had not realised just what amazing creatures they are. I had held my first pigeon when I was very small. Great uncle Wilfred had a pigeon loft at the bottom of the garden and had let me hold a handful of squabs while he cleaned out their nest-box… baby birds with closed eyes and a few yellow tufts of down. I never forgot the feel of their skin, the dark smudges of their closed eyes and the smiling, open beaks waiting blindly for food.
Years later, my father kept racing pigeons and Waterloo Lofts had something of a reputation for breeding winners in the pigeon-racing world. The birds would be trained by taking them, say, thirty miles away in a basket before releasing them to find their way home. Apart from the odd bird who fell foul of guns, wires and poisoned grain on the way, they always came back.
Their homing instinct is not well understood, but it is thought that they use the sun’s position for mapping and the lines of the earth’s magnetic field as a compass. From thirty miles away and from the vantage point of flight, that doesn’t seem so difficult. But, once a week during the racing season, each fancier would pack up a basket of their birds with water for the trip. They would be loaded into a lorry and sent over the Channel to France before being released.
They were transported overnight, as one basket amongst hundreds stacked in a curtained lorry, with no chance of tracking their position relative to the sun. Yet, within hours of their release, every pigeon-fancier would be out at the loft, waiting to clock in the bids with their special racing rings. It is a passionate business. Racing pigeons have an average speed of around sixty miles per hour over a distance of six hundred miles, though they can fly at up to a hundred miles an hour. The most successful birds can later be sold for breeding for enormous sums, even topping the million mark. But that only explains why racing pigeons is such an absorbing pursuit… not how the birds find their way home.
The ‘map and compass’ theory did not go down well as we discussed it, although the idea of a specialised centre in the brain that can read the earth’s currents was a little more acceptable. Sight and smell probably play their part too, especially helping to locate their own tiny loft roof in a big city. Even so, there is still a mystery that science has yet to satisfactorily explain about their invisible guidance system. To Stuart, though, it was simple; they know what home feels like.
As I watched the video of the waltz and thought about pigeons, I realised that I was seeing the same thing in action with the dance, though at a different level; one partner leads, the guidance so subtle that it remains unseen. The pressure of a hand, the turn of a shoulder… and a good dancer can lead his partner around the floor as together they create a pattern of movement in harmony.
The invisible guidance that allows the pigeon to find its way home or two strangers to dance as one is perfectly natural, even if it is not fully understood. Both logic and science will find ways to describe it… even though such descriptions are not always or wholly right.
I had wanted to write about the inner guidance that is there for us in the silent recesses of the mind and heart, where science is less confident and logic takes us only to knowledge, not understanding. It occurred to me that I had, unwittingly, done so with both pigeons and dance. Unconscious chains of association had joined dots my conscious mind had failed to see; even a scientist would be happy with that explanation.
But there are things still far beyond our understanding and those mysteries add depth and colour to the tapestry of life. When we feel called to a particular place or path, when we find comfort or joy within, when we are sure of the innate rightness of the choices we make, not because of our moral code or upbringing but because we can feel ourselves aligned with a purpose beyond our own, we may seek to understand what it is that calls us. Perhaps there is, like the dancer, an unseen hand that guides. Or maybe, with the pigeons, we are just remembering what Home feels like.