For me, writing is musical. It’s also a quest for precision. How do I channel these images and feelings in my mind and heart into words on the page?
Metaphor is, of course, one way to get there, through the back door of memory. Emotional associations with a sound, a smell, a sight or taste or touch provide the key. But what if the metaphor references experiences beyond the reader’s world? That’s where empathy and imagination come into play. And what better medium to spark both than a story?
One of the most powerful metaphors that I found while writing Line of Flight was the plight of the passenger pigeon (not to be confused with carrier pigeons, which play a different, significant role in my novel). When Simone first speaks with Colin Rockwell, a British ornithologist and fellow traveler on the Lusitania, he describes how he is returning to London from the States after studying the extinction of what had once been the most prevalent bird species on the continent:
He explained, with great passion, how these birds, which once numbered in the billions in North America, are now no more. The last known passenger pigeon died on September 1, 1914, the day he departed for the States. They would travel in huge flocks, arriving like a massive, dark cloud in fields or forests, in search of food and nesting grounds. People would run for cover, fearing a biblical plague.
“But how could they simply vanish?”
“They were hunted to extinction.”
He shook his head, overcome by his story. “Please forgive me, Mrs. Levitsky, but Homo sapiens’ capacity for destruction is unparalleled in Nature. When I left London to pursue my research in your country, I had no idea that I would return to a homeland still at war, with millions dead and wounded, and no end in sight.”
No one alive today can recall the overwhelming arrival of a flock of millions of passenger pigeons—or the profound silence of their absence. Our concept of a flock of birds in the 21st century has no parallel. I have read extraordinary descriptions. In an earlier draft of my novel, I went into more detail, how the birds would blacken the sky like an arriving storm, with a roar louder than the Lusitania‘s engines and a choking stench of excrement.
In the May-June 2014 issue of Audubon, dedicated to the centenary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction, contributor Barry Yeoman cites the 1895 recollections of Potawatomi tribal leader Simon Pokagon, while camping at the headwaters of Michigan’s Manistee River 45 years earlier:
Throughout the 19th century, witnesses had described similar sightings of pigeon migrations: how they took hours to pass over a single spot, darkening the firmament and rendering normal conversation inaudible. Pokagon remembered how sometimes a traveling flock, arriving at a deep valley, would “pour its living mass” hundreds of feet into a downward plunge. “I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America,” he wrote, “yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”
The story of the passenger pigeons’ demise is gut-wrenching. With the arrival of railroads and the messaging speed of telegraphs, hunting tasty passenger pigeons became a booming commercial industry. Yeoman writes:
The professionals and amateurs together outflocked their quarry with brute force. They shot the pigeons and trapped them with nets, torched their roosts, and asphyxiated them with burning sulfur. They attacked the birds with rakes, pitchforks, and potatoes. They poisoned them with whiskey-soaked corn. Learning of some of these methods, Potawatomi leader Pokagon despaired. “These outlaws to all moral sense would touch a lighted match to the bark of the tree at the base, when with a flash—more like an explosion—the blast would reach every limb of the tree,” he wrote of an 1880 massacre, describing how the scorched adults would fell and the squabs would “burst open upon hitting the ground.”
All of this was in my mind and heart when I wrote Colin’s words. I could think of no better metaphor for the horrific death and destruction that was World War I. Will a modern reader fully grasp the metaphor without a historical point of reference? Impossible to know. I can only hope that it resonates, how the wanton destruction of billions of birds for profit wiped an entire species off the face of the Earth, how the impulse to destroy for power and glory threatens all existence.
Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at evelynherwitz.com.