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Last Page: Elsewhere in the Land of Parrots
Fiction by Jim Paul
This month's Last Page features an excerpt from a new novel by former Noe Valley resident Jim Paul: Elsewhere in the Land of Parrots, published by Harcourt in July 2003. For 18 years, Paul lived in a three-story apartment building at 1170 Guerrero Street, near 24th Street. During that time, he renovated the building's rooftop laundry hut to use as a writing studio. He also wrote two acclaimed novels: Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon (1991) and Medieval in L.A. (1996), which the San Francisco Chronicle described as "more consistently charming and intelligent than most of us manage to be in a day." In 2000, Paul gave into something that had been tugging at him for a long while: a desire to live in the "Big West, amid the mountains and hundred-mile vistas." He moved to a ranch in the Rincon Mountains of Arizona, about an hour from Tucson and six miles up a dirt road (four-wheel-drive required). There he has continued to write, but gone are the days of running up to Bell Market to pick up a quart of milk. Paul sometimes waxes nostalgic about his old abode. "Noe Valley has all the best parts of city life and a small-town feel," he says. "I miss, among other things, Hamano Sushi, Martha and Brothers, even my laundromat, and a good bookstore like Cover to Cover." In fact, Paul hopes to return in the near future to do a reading in Cover to Cover's cozy new location on Castro Street. He would be able to visit his old friends, he says, and look for the birds who partly inspired Elsewhere in the Land of Parrots, the wild Brazilian parakeets that nested in the palm trees along Dolores Street. The birds feature prominently in the novel, which is about a timid San Francisco writer whose interest in the feathered fugitives takes him all the way to South America, where he meets a young woman scientist who shares his passion. Noe Valley makes its appearance in the early pages of the book. "It was delicious to reconstruct the old neighborhood," says Paul. "I gave the main character my old apartment." --Olivia Boler
Jim Paul introduces this excerpt from his novel Elsewhere in the Land of Parrots (Harcourt, 2003):
Noe Valley resident David Huntington is a reclusive poet known for writing verse as meaningless as he can make it. For years, David has lived fearfully, sleeping and working with earplugs and rarely going outside. Each day he has drawn his life more closely around him. When his pet parrot, an unwanted gift from his father, drives away the first woman he's met in months, David throws the bird out the window. Then, out of guilt, he follows it out into the world. His search takes him first to the Mission Library
and then up 24th Street, where he makes a
On his next trip to the library, David plunged into some particularly poignant reading on extinct parrots. There had once existed on the island of Guadaloupe in the Lesser Antilles a magnificent, large, long-tailed purple parrot, called in retrospect Anodorhynchus purpurascens. Ornithologists assumed that this bird had belonged to the same genus as the largest and most impressive parrots on the South American continent: the Hyacinth Macaw, which had as its dominant color a rich cobalt blue, and the Lear's Macaw, an aquamarine variation.
David's awakening imagination stirred at the thought of this lost creature, sighted officially only once, by a European sailor who had been so astonished by the beauty of this bird that he had written something down. David could picture the scene: the anodorhynchus, big and imposing, its long tail streaming, its feathers the violet blue of dawn, flying over this open-mouthed sailor and into extinction. The early European explorers of the Caribbean often killed, cooked, and ate macaws, and this was considered the main reason for the bird's demise. Somebody had turned it into food.
David left the library that day acutely alert to the physical space of the city, as if he too might be about to glimpse something extraordinary and gorgeous and about to be gone forever. On the street, he had an almost physical impression of the hills insisting that the streets rise and fall over them in just that way. He noticed the water beyond them and he noticed the air, the high bright space above everything, which previous to this had been to him--what?--a blank, a negative, a not, and now was this thick fluid medium, on which the seagulls could linger.
The next day he discovered the Carolina Parakeet, the only parrot native to the United States. These yellow-headed birds had ranged from Florida to Michigan in the Colonial Period. Lewis and Clark had noticed them on a tributary of the Kansas River. They lived in large flocks, of three hundred birds sometimes, and their seemingly tropical appearance had startled people in Conestoga wagons. One report described a flock of Carolina Parakeets in a bayou in southern Louisiana in the summer of 1895. In the light of dawn, they had raised a clamor in a stand of black mulberries.
In his dusty carrel in the library, David felt moved by the description of these birds. Like his own lost parrot, they were conures, their Latin name Conuropsis carolinensis. They'd been too smart for their own good, seeking out the most delicious fruits--those most highly prized by that other too-smart-for-its-own-good species, human beings, who had rid the planet of this competitor. Farmers with firearms had killed great numbers of the birds in the fields. The birds had no fear of guns and so were slaughtered by the hundreds, "eight, ten, twenty at a shot," wrote James J. Audubon, who shot dozens of them himself, collecting a bushel basket of dead parakeets for his sketches.
The gregarious nature of these birds, noted Audubon, had contributed to their extinction as a species. They could not leave their wounded companions behind. As the farmers shot at them, the living birds, "as if conscious of the deaths of their companions," swept over the bodies, screaming as loud as ever, until so few remained alive that the farmer didn't consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition. The final representative of the species, the last Carolina Parakeet, named Uncas after James Fenimore Cooper's Indian in The Last of the Mohicans, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.
David had to pause there, astonished to find his sight smeared with tears. David, who had not really even looked at a bird until the parrot in his apartment had driven his call into David's consciousness, who had not wept a single tear during his divorce, David cried in his alcove of the library, baffled even as his crying shook him, but giving in and blubbering into his hands over the desk. For the bitter fate of these long dead birds? Yes, partly, but it was mostly for the species' overwhelming wish to live, that screeching, stubborn attachment that had proven so fatal, and for this colorful vital possibility lost to the world, gone out the window.
He left the library feeling shaken, wondering if it wasn't a bit crazy, having reached such heights from reading odd and ancient bird lore. He walked up 24th Street, heading for home. But he could not manage to direct himself into his building and into the solitude of his apartment and so decided to continue up the hill and find something for dinner in Noe Valley. The sun was setting behind Twin Peaks as he walked west up the silhouetted hill toward the conflagration.
And then as if he had readied himself for a vision in the ancient fashion, David heard an odd yet familiar sound, a steely twittering. It came from the crown of a palm tree in the middle of the traffic island on Dolores Street, and it sounded like a gang of Little Wittgensteins. He couldn't see anything in the tree, though he walked around it, peering upwards. Whatever they were, they were well hidden in the fronds, and they were celebrating. This scissoring sound was a jangle of angry joy. David listened for a while, until he was sure. Then he went on up the street, passing the café where he had his coffee in the morning, and there at the same sidewalk table was the same birdlike, behatted man who had told him about mourning doves. And again the guy seemed to know what David was thinking.
"Oh, it's you," he said. "Have another bird you'd like identified?"
"I do, yes," said David. He explained that he was just on the corner and had heard what sounded like parrots in a palm tree.
"They are parrots," the man said. "Parakeets, actually, canary-winged parakeets. Escaped cage birds from Brazil. They come to my yard and try to crack the walnuts."
So this was the joy he had heard in the palm trees--the exultation of successful escapees. The cry of these cocky birds had been as different from "Polly-wanna-cracker" as possible. It had been more like "Fuck-you-we-got-out."
"Yeah, weird, huh?" said the guy. "They live off exotic fruits, you know, Japanese plums and the like."
"If you want to see real parrots, though," he went on, "there are real parrots living downtown. Around Telegraph Hill. A flock of about 40. Also escaped cage birds. They're all one species, just like the canary-wings. But bigger birds. Conures, actually. Somehow they manage to find each other." *
Jim Paul is a poet, translator, and author of four books. He has won both Guggenheim and Wallace Stegner writing fellowships and served on the faculty at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. His new novel will be available at Cover to Cover Booksellers and Phoenix Books and Records.
The Noe Valley Voice invites you to submit fiction, literary nonfiction, or poetry for publication on the Last Page. Please mail manuscripts, which should be no longer than 1,500 words, to the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to include your name, address, and phone number, and an SASE if you want your manuscript returned. We look forward to hearing from you.