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Columbia Livia

I walked down an escalator into the 24th Street BART station in San Francisco's Mission District. I was in a hurry, as I always am in BART. I don't enjoy BART with the same wonder that I felt 23 years ago, when the then-gleaming gray cars of the underground light rail stood for everything my former home of Orange County did not: efficient futurism.

Now BART has become another feature of the city, and it is worn down, besides. It's now simply a well-traveled, still efficient, but sadly familiar semaphore for the agitated haste of the city commuter. I walked rapidly down the moving escalator steps.

I saw people everywhere and the entry gates and the BART musician of the day, and my mind and energy were at least 30 steps ahead. My spirit was already waiting on the platform: everyone moved with practiced, controlled impatience. We were none of us really there: we were really at home or a restaurant or maybe even in the office, although it was late afternoon.

Thank goodness (or the Goddess) that my peripheral vision, the sight that sees before the mind can grasp, is as good as ever.

I saw the pigeon sitting on her nest before it registered. Of course, I didn't want to stop. I wanted to keep moving, but my peripheral vision joined forces with my younger and more curiously observant self and said, "There's a pigeon sitting on a nest at the bottom of the escalator. Don't you want to look at it?"

Sometimes I resist my curiosity, because once you start looking, it's hard to stop. Sometimes you see things that may cause you pain, and this potential, I knew, was alive then and there. A female pigeon sitting on a nest in a publicly accessible space in a crowded transit station does not bode well for the bird, her nest, or her eggs.

I turned and looked. Columba livia, the common city pigeon, was sitting on her nest, with her gray iridescent breast ballooning out over the lip of the twigs and grass she'd collected to make a place to lay her eggs and rear her squabs. The eggs take about 21 days to hatch, and then of course, there are helpless chicks to be protected and reared.

I knew that there was no way the pigeon was going to remain unmolested for long. But she didn't know that. Her eyes were round and they had that look of bright now-ness that suggests, to me, an acute consciousness bounded by temporal restrictions. She couldn't see into the future. She had no idea she and her eggs would be swept away.

I did. My heart hurt. The essential dignity of the mother—that quiet stance of pleasure and satisfaction in one's own fecundity—is not something I encounter too often. I don't have children and neither do many of my friends. The quiet pigeon sitting on her nest, ruffling her feathers and shifting her weight, radiated grounded contentment and embodied pleasure.

Of course, this is anthropocentrism, the attribution of human thought and emotion to things that are not human. But it isn't impossible, is it, that she was happy? That she was content? That the joy humans and animals feel while participating in the great cycle of reproduction is transcendent?

She would be undermined, surely. She was laying her eggs in the wrong place, a place where humans could interfere with her, a place where BART staff didn't want a pigeon's nest to be, what with all the shit and dross of a bird's nest. Too, there are rats that live in BART stations. One of these rats would have found her eggs to be irresistible.

She felt divine to me. She was not just a pigeon. She was Columba Livia, mother of her species, a great mother among many great mothers, and more importantly she was, at that moment, the Great Mother, the wonderful deity through which all life must pass. I decided to reverence her in the BART station.

Facing her, I said these things:

May you be protected and safe from harm.
May you feel at ease and at peace.
May you suffer no pain, no hardship.
You are the Great Mother.
You are the Great Mother and I revere you.
I see you on your nest bringing life into this world.
May you be blessed and may your children be blessed.

I probably said more, but this is what I can remember. Whatever it was I said, it was surely a confused jumble: a partial recitation of the Metta meditation and a simple phrase of recognition: You are the Great Mother. I was in a BART station and was provoked by my realization of being in the presence of the feminine divine to stop the action, and do the best I could, without attracting too much attention (although San Franciscans have certainly seen weirder things than a woman speaking to a pigeon).

I did not speak out loud, just closed my eyes and concentrated on feeling love for her and all women who struggle on behalf of their families.

I'm not sure why I blessed her, except, perhaps, the unconscious recognition that the goddess in me wished to recognize the goddess and the mother in her. That recognition, I suppose, is a gesture of equity.

I told my husband about her later, and we went to visit her. My husband—who is a very gentle man—looked at her with concern and said, "Her name is Plucky. Plucky the pigeon." I laughed. It sounded like the title of a children's book: Plucky the Pigeon and Her First Nest. That story would have had a definite and happy ending.

The ending to this story is indefinite and ambiguous: Plucky's nest stayed in place for two weeks, and then one day it was gone, with nothing to show that it had ever been there.

Pigeons mate for life and they mate when food is available, and since they are so adapted to cities and the scattered piles of food, there is every reason to suppose that she made a nest somewhere else and had her children in peace away from prying eyes and ravenous rats.

I am a reproductive rights activist and I think about these things a lot. Within the last two years the support for women's reproductive health in America (and Ireland; - R.I.P. Savita Halappanavar. You were undermined most cruelly) has reached an all-time low. In America there has always been a schizophrenic response to when and where and HOW women birth, abort, control, or conceive.

Name any decision a woman might make that involves her reproductive capacity, and I'll show you a state or federal law that tries to undermine that decision. The divine, I think, speaks to us- or tries to above the din- about what we might do when we're faced with an acute situation that calls for a response. And I believe that though we try to respond to that voice, too often, we're displaced from situating ourselves comfortably within our decision simply because it doesn't fit someone else's idea of what is fit, what is appropriate.

It's too simple to say this, but I'll say it: I saw the pigeon in her fertile and endangered state and I saw myself and other women. I saw the pigeon and thought about divinity: the shared experience of creation that exists above and beyond contemporary political skirmishes. I thought about the incredible steadfastness of the urge to reproduce and the power that binds us - women and pigeon, goddesses both -in the same incredible, indefatigable net of divinity.

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Elizabeth Creely lives in San Francisco, and has explored almost every type of environment California has to offer: coastal, riverine, grassland, desert and montane. This blog features an new essay (hopefully) every month. I like quality more than quantity, and intend to write substantive, research-based essays that reflect the best of my conversations, childhood memories, discoveries  and reflections of California. What's Dinnshenchas mean, you ask? It's an old Irish narrative genre that takes its inspiration from a genre of Irish story telling that recounts the origins of place names. It concerns itself with the mythic, and California is nothing if not that.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Monday, 15 July 2013

    May we all have the wisdom to stop and notice. Thank you for your words.

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