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Stumped: A tale of two pigeons

26th March 2012 - 12 Midnight Tom Clayton


With the arrival of spring, many of us are venturing into the great outdoors for the first time this year. The welcome sunshine has inspired Tom Clayton from our St Pancras International branch to bring together some of the finest writing on Britain's magnificent woodlands and this has brought back childhood memories.

Putting together a table of tree and woodland books at our St Pancras International branch (see the list of titles below) has reminded me of a family tale that I'd like to share with you all.

One of the major features of my childhood was an enormous fir tree that separated one half of our long, narrow garden from the other. In winter its branches creaked under snowfall, the top lost to low fog. In summer it doubled in size and enveloped wayward footballs. I once spent half an hour hanging upside-down from it, a misjudged den escape that left my first pair of jeans in tatters.

Wood pigeonA pair of wood pigeons pottered around at the base of the tree in all weathers. Their 'hoo-hoo, hoo' call became a background to my garden-based adventures, and when the air grew colder in the evenings, I would sit in the bay window in the living room and watch their heads bobbing slowly in the leaves. My dad called every pigeon he saw 'Percy', whether they were male or female (though admittedly it is hard to tell). They even seemed to follow us on our family holidays to Norfolk or Cornwall, and returned dutifully each spring to build their nest in the upper reaches of our tree. I liked to think it was the same pair we saw, though it was more likely the nest had changed hands, or wings, a number of times. (I am reliably informed that wood pigeons can have a lifespan of anywhere between three and 17 years. Maybe the two Percys were older than me?)

One spring day in my third year of university I was on the phone with mum when she announced that the tree was going. 'It's too big for me, it's getting out of control', she said. I imagined it looming over her, Triffid-like. A week later the surgeons came to cut the tree down. I wasn't there to see it, but I imagined the sun-deprived side of it dissolving under the chainsaw in an explosion of twiggy dust. A basket of dead sticks. 'We're thinking of polishing up the stump and turning it into a garden bench', my mum said.

Tree stumpThat never happened, though, and probably never will. Because shortly after the tree was removed, we found two globby pigeon poos on the stump. A marking of territory? A protest? Sure enough, the pigeons were still around, cooing in the dying light; still trying to bob underneath a tree that wasn't there. Like an amputee with a phantom limb, they were just having a bit of trouble adjusting, and their indignant crapping was understandable. I almost felt like joining them in a show of solidarity.

And when the time came, I returned from university to my childhood bedroom - and tried to roost again.

Many of the books I've included in this selection are big favourites of mine: Beyond The Deepwoods and The Adventures of Robin Hood are classics for young readers, while Bill Bryson's and Roger Deakin's accounts of woodland wanderings are a pleasure to dip into. And if it's the more shadowy fronds that appeal to you, The Wood Cutter and The Quickening Maze should quicken the pulse. Two of our finest living poets are also included - John Burnside's The Hunt in the Forest and Alice Oswald's Woods Etc. are sumptuously rich pieces of work.

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