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The ostrich is one of nature's misfits: a gigantic bird that can neither fly nor sing. But the fin-de-siecle fetish for feathers made ostrich plumes more precious than gold. Rob Nixon grew up near the South African desert where ostriches first boomed, and had an early passion for the outsize bird. Later, his rejection of apartheid led him to immigrate to the United States, where he encountered a new wave of ostrich mania: American ranchers were trying to convert the gawky bird into a low-cal cuisine. Part memoir,...
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The ostrich is one of nature's misfits: a gigantic bird that can neither fly nor sing. But the fin-de-siecle fetish for feathers made ostrich plumes more precious than gold. Rob Nixon grew up near the South African desert where ostriches first boomed, and had an early passion for the outsize bird. Later, his rejection of apartheid led him to immigrate to the United States, where he encountered a new wave of ostrich mania: American ranchers were trying to convert the gawky bird into a low-cal cuisine. Part memoir, part travelogue, Dreambirds is a natural history of a fantasy and a beautifully crafted, candid revelation of a man's soul.
Dad died three days ago; we buried him this morning. His going has brought us all home: five brothers and sisters, strangers and relative strangers, together in the same country for the first time in twenty-four years. Only my brother has remained here in Port Elizabeth, Africa's southernmost city. The rest of us spread or fled north, east and west to New York, Cape Town, Sydney, Henley-on-Thames. Five children, four continents. I worked it out this morning while preparing for the funeral: collectively, we've put 22,000 miles between us and the first place we called home.
It's typical — and right — that Dad is absent. That's exactly how I remember him: dashing off regardless of the occasion, excusing himself, disappearing over the horizon on one of his perpetual schemes. If he's gone now, it's because he's so busy. `Back,' as he always said, `in a jiffy.'
We're sitting in the bedroom in our church clothes, too heavy for this late summer weather. We're sipping tea and trying to get to know each other. And trying to find ways of supporting Mom, today (and most days) the bravest woman around. We've pulled open Dad's drawers and surrounded ourselves with photographs: mounds and mounds of them, the foothills of the past.
Each cupboard we poke into is a jumble of slides and prints. He took them pell-mell, faster than they could be labelled or organized. Family groups, elephants at feeding time, mountain peaks he had climbed, parks he had helped preserve, choirs to which he had added his tentative tenor. But mostly we uncover pictures ofindigenous plants: flowers (some still unknown to science), trees shot from far off and close-up images of the delicate deltas of leaves. That's where he composed himself: behind the camera, in front of foliage. Fiddling for focus, tinkering with a viewfinder, switching lenses and filters, trying to get just the right aperture on his shutters. Then he'd be off again, back into the darkroom.
Mom shuffles photos absently, fingering them but looking away. Then she pulls one out, glances at it, and passes it to me upside down, like a dealer distributing cards. `Rob, do you remember this? Do you remember how hot it was? Do you remember what you lost that day?'
Yes, I do.
I see a small boy perched high on the back of an ostrich. A boy with dangly legs, his hands full of feathers, his knees tucked beneath the wings. He's looking down, afraid of heights, unsure of all this altitude. To keep the bird from bolting, someone has slipped over its head a white hood that says `Bleached Flour', like some cartoonist's spoof of the Ku Klux Klan.
I see I am wearing my hot pants. My shortest shorts. This was Mom's innocent term, her way of talking. She would say: `It's pretty steamy out there, my boy; why don't you just slip into your hot pants?'
The ostrich handler must have stepped up then (he's obscured in the picture, reduced to a saggy hat) and whipped off the bag. The bird shot out of the starting block and thumped me to the ground. The hat man caught my ostrich and was kind to me. It bothers me that I can't see his face. But I can picture it: warmly creased in the manner of the mixed-race `coloureds' who worked those desert farms. The man hoisted me back into the high, hot nest of feathers: `Luister nou — now listen here,' he whispered in Afrikaans, `when you're up there, sit low and lean back. You can't ride it like a horse, otherwise you'll go right over the top.' And off I went, this time staying on, running topspeed round and round the ring.
The stretch of South Africa where I grew up boasts a century-old tradition of ostrich ranching. The giant birds were as integral to my boyhood landscape as hogs to any Iowa child or lambs to a Welsh one. I grew up on the edge of the Karoo, a huge scrub desert whose name derives from a San or Bushman word meaning Big Thirst. The Karoo sprawls for a quarter of a million square miles — an area as big as Texas or five times the size of England. In this desert world, the ostrich has been an object of reverie for generations, a glamorous creature inspiring elaborate dreams.
If you cross the Karoo, driving west from Port Elizabeth, you arrive at Oudtshoorn, a town that has long been the global epicentre of everything ostrich. At the end of the nineteenth century, ragtag bands of Lithuanian Jews, fleeing the pogroms, beached on South Africa's shores. Some trekked inland towards Oudtshoorn, where, among the aloes and prickly pears of the Karoo desert, they turned to farming ostriches. Oudtshoorn was the Afrikaans name for the village that these refugees came to know by another name: the Jerusalem of Africa. The place became, for them, an oasis of hope. Whole villages in Lithuania acquired fabulous stories about this Jerusalem of Africa where Jews could grow wealthy in the desert herding gigantic geese.
Within a decade or two of arriving in the Karoo, some refugees had metamorphosed into wealthy ostrich barons. A bunch of barons — Jews, Afrikaners, Englishmen and Scots — built feather palaces from the proceeds of the plumes: huge, eccentric mansions that mixed the wildest excesses of Ottoman, Victorian, Greek and Gothic architecture.
Those were the glory days of the feather trade. From the 1880s until World War One, the elegant plumes were more than an accessory to style: on boas and opera cloaks and cascading from hats, they became a fashion fundamental. To satisfy the tastes of natty dressers in America and Europe, and the demands of music hall and cabaret, the South African ostrich population swelled and swelled, until by 1913 one million birds were being bred for their feathers. The plumes soared in value, becoming, ounce for ounce, more precious than gold.
Our family trips to Oudtshoorn were a major boyhood adventure. There was something about the place, Magical, but disturbing. The streets were broad enough for oxwagons to turn in, piled high with plumes for foreign dames. I got to glimpse those ladies in Oudtshoorn's ostrich museum: pink mannequins wearing feathery clothes that looked like if you sneezed they'd come tumbling to the ground. I loved to visit those ladies in their glass cages, though I never stayed for long. They looked desirable but wrong.
I could tell that Oudtshoorn had been touched by far-off places, by the glamorous north end of the earth. I knew them only as names: Paris, New York, London, St Petersburg, Vienna and Berlin. As a child, the history of this ostrich town felt different, spoke to me through traces and trinkets of a fabulous beyond.
The Jerusalem of Africa became my imaginative oasis, allowing me a whiff of mystery through the coquetry of feathers. But the town at large was severely Calvinist. I shrank, even then, from this other Oudtshoorn which bristled with soldiers and church spires. Later, I would recognize it as a one-mistake town. South Africa's hinterland abounded in such towns: places where, in a flash, you could become a lifelong casualty of some unmentionable act — a dalliance behind a shed, an abortion, a hint of homosexuality, cross-racial intimacy of any kind. Places where, if you were black, your destiny could be sealed by gossip about a glance, an insurrectionary look at a white man, or a flash of illegitimate desire. One-mistake towns like Oudtshoorn seemed to produce sad, purgatorial people, trailing the Main Street, reminding everyone that if you slipped you would be made to live the error of your ways.
So the Oudtshoorn of my childhood became two towns rolled into one. An enchanted place, full of giant birds, feathers and fantasies of Parisian fashion and cabaret. But it was always also this other thing: a place of tarnished magic and an as yet unspecified unease.
Oudtshoorn lies about 200 miles west of our Port Elizabeth home. But if you took the desert route, as we usually did, there was nothing in-between, nothing except a few dry hamlets, a couple of inbred families in each. We would set off in our Opel Kapitan, a big bulbous car with the colouring and lethargy of a camel. Like every car and camera Dad ever owned, it was third-, or fourth- or fifth-hand. There were no floor gears: the gearstick grew out of the steering-wheel, which meant you could pack a driver and three people on the bench seat up front.
Our Kapitan was the envy of every petrol attendant at every gas station we visited. We would watch the gauge sliding towards empty; wait for Dad to pull in at the next Mobil or Caltex sign; and then sit back while the haggling began. An African would saunter up, beaming but drowning in those billowing blue overalls attendants were made to wear. `Morning, boss. Best taxi-car in the world, boss. This car is a must-have, boss. Hard to get, boss. Look at this rust, boss. Too old for a whiteman, boss.' There Dad stood, shaking his head and shifting his feet, quietly refusing, utterly ill at ease.
I had visions of him one day, as the gas sizzled into the tank beneath us, poking his head through the window and announcing: `OK, you lot. Pile out. We're walking from here.' Not because he cared to sell, but just to spare himself these jabbing reminders that — despite his heroic efforts and Mom's — we were not quite middle class.
In truth, he couldn't sell. The Kapitan's taxi potential made it ideal for our family. We were a multi-generational, nine-tiered construction, like one of those parking garages that spirals up and up. I was the ground floor. My younger brother, Andy, must have felt he was destined to be the basement. Up above me, was my sister Marion; on the levels beyond her, Sheelagh then Ruth. Next came Mom and Dad, then Mom's mom, and right at the top, where the spiral was exposed to the sky, you would find Mom's mom's father, whom we knew as Gaffy.
I was much older before I ever heard the phrase `head of the family', but it was an idea I never quite understood. Our family never had a head or a ceiling. Dad was lost in the middle somewhere. As a child, I half-expected at any minute, from a coughing recess of the house, that yet another ancient would emerge. `Good morning,' he would say. `You must be Robert. Let me introduce myself. I'm your mother's mother's father's father.'
I don't recall how many of us filed into the Kapitan that day I first learned the rudiments of ostrich riding. Gaffy, I'm sure, didn't come. He often stayed home: he was on the brink of turning one hundred. A cricket fan, he was dead set on scoring his century. `Slow but steady,' he would say. `I'll let the other chaps hit out.'
He certainly wasn't going to throw it all away on a trip to see some darn fool ostriches in this heart-stopping heat.
So Gaffy wasn't there. But his watch was.
I never figured whether he gave it to me as something valuable, an heirloom for the oldest boy, or because it didn't work too well. It was a wonky watch. It had an immaculate round face, fine numbering as delicate as a hair and a bold, brassy shine. But the long hand was bent and scratchy. It would get snarled up and then spring forward, so the minutes didn't always arrive on time. But it was my first watch and I loved it; loved it enough to invent all forms of business that required someone to announce the hour. It was a watch with a history and now it could transport me into adulthood.
Gaffy had brought it from the old country when, in 1910, at age forty-five, he'd emigrated to South Africa as a painter-decorator. He came from a Scottish border hamlet called Biggar, some miles south of Edinburgh. `Biggar,' Gaffy would say, `is far smaller than you think.' It wasn't a good joke, and, in his dotage, he made it far too often, but when I heard it for the first time I remember laughing and thinking, with pleasure, that I was catching on to the tricks adults played with words.
So the watch went with me on the ostrich trip. It was a blistering Oudtshoorn day; so hot we could have fried an egg — maybe a chicken even — on the rooftop of our Opel Kapitan. The steel concertina watch strap started pinching and sweating in the heat. I took it off, cradling the watch in my palm. After the ostrich ride, we were given a tour of the farm. At one of the paddocks, I noticed a tatty ostrich hen pecking at the earth. Finding the stone of her fancy, she ate it; picking out a second and a third, she arched her neck to swallow. I asked our guide about her odd behaviour: was she sick, like when Blacky, our cat, eats grass?
No, he explained, this was normal. To stay alive, an ostrich has to keep three pounds of stones in its gut for grinding its food into submission. The stones serve as surrogate teeth: this is a creature with molars in its stomach.
`Did you know they eat diamonds too?' He paused so we could grasp that fact.
`One of the first and biggest diamonds discovered in South Africa was found three hundred miles north of here,' he continued. `That was long, long ago, about a hundred years. That shiny stone changed the course of history. Problem was, there weren't any other diamonds around. Geologically speaking, that stone had no right being there. Today we know an ostrich must have eaten it, walked two hundred miles, then poohed it out. That ostrich gave a lot of prospectors a mighty headache. He got them wasting their time looking in all the wrong places.'
The guide peered down at the children's contingent to see if we were suitably impressed.
I loved it. This guy was a mine of natural history know-how, like a living, walking Chappies Chewing Gum wrapper. I got to thinking about Granny with her rumbly stomach: how much worse if she had been an ostrich, her innards clacking away like castanets every time she ate lamb.
A huge ostrich rooster sauntered over to our tour. He peered down at us from across the fence, head on one side, as we digested all this information. Then suddenly his neck unfurled in a cobra strike; I felt a nudge in my hand. In a flash, my watch had gone. He'd snapped it up and snaffled it down as if it were some pesky living thing: a gnat, say, or a dragonfly. I saw little shivers as it passed down his long, long neck.
I was inconsolable, abruptly cut adrift.
The man wrapped an arm around my shoulder and beckoned the others towards a small museum in a corner of the farm. `The ostrich,' he said when we got there, `is a formidable omnivore. That means an animal which eats anything. Most of all it likes shiny things. As this young lad found out when he lost his watch back there. There's just about nothing an ostrich won't eat.' He turned and winked confidingly in our parents' direction: `Maybe your mom wishes you were more like little ostriches that just eat what's put in front of them.'
I wasn't in the mood for jokes.
Then the man began passing around objects retrieved from the stomachs of old ostriches. Spark plugs, sticks, metal ash trays, sheep bones, soda cans, baling wire, a high-heeled shoe, copper piping, the shiny skeleton of a kitten. Watery-eyed, I ran my fingers over them. Their edges and ridges were all rubbed off. Every object felt as sleek as the skimming stones I collected along river beds, smoothed and tumbled by time.
Our guide finally began to register the level of my distress.
`OK. Let's say you haven't lost your watch; let's say that ostrich is just looking after it for a while.'
He made it sound like a pawn shop, like the one where Gaffy had left his walking stick and his teeth when he had run out of cash.
The man was talking down to me. I was beginning to lose my cool.
`OK, then. When can I come and fetch it?'
He paused. He reached down for a black, sharp-handled comb protruding from a sock. He ran his thumbnail up and down it, then passed it through his hair.
`You must understand, my boy. An ostrich can live a long, long time. Sometimes as long as a man. You might have to come back in thirty years.'
Thirty years! I did some instant arithmetic. OK, I knew how long one school day felt: a school day was endless. There were eighty school days in a school term and one hundred and twenty terms in thirty years ...
That night I went to bed with nothing left to wind. In six hours, I knew, deep in that big bird's tummy, the ticking would stop for good.
I lay there, wide awake, trying to wrap my mind round so much time. When you're eight, an ostrich is one-hundred-feet high. And thirty years lies as far ahead as the Stone Age lies behind.