In a Word

It had been a year since we acquired the land on which the Thompson Vineyard sits, which had been known as the JT Ranch in recognition of Jerry Thompson, its prior patriarch. 

We acknowledge all who came before us and recognize that our family is part of a chain of custodians fortunate enough to roam these same hills bathed in warm dusky afternoon sunlight and breathe oceanic morning air through sinewy lichen-veiled oaks.  In that spirit, we long ago decided our vineyard would retain the Thompson name, whose family had coaxed the land into birthing something very special that we now continue to care for and cultivate.  However, the much larger overall slice of earth that was now our own family home required a new name.

But how does one go about naming a home?

Inheritance and Discovery

It could be considered auspicious that we’d inherited a name of an existing small but well regarded Viognier vineyard we purchased (planted in 1998 within the imminent Los Olivos District AVA) as part of a home in which our family was to spend time during a remodel of the main ranch house at Thompson Vineyard.

But what did this timeworn, gentle sounding word really mean?

noun, late Middle English (1375-1425)

  1. A small shelter for doves or similar birds to live in.
  2. A settled or harmonious group of people working together.

It turns out that for years I had been admiring these beautiful and intricate structures as part of old estates, farms, villas, and chateaus.  Always one of my favorite elements of rural architecture, I had assumed they were just small towers that served some antiquated purpose of storage or security.  But now I was compelled to delve deep into annals of history to discover more about the origin, purpose, symbolism, and significance of these structures I’d loved for so long.

After surrendering myself to countless hours of late-night research, poring over old architectural and academic literature, and stumbling through several beautifully written historic works of fiction, I feel faintly qualified to explain the nature of dovecotes, both historically and symbolically, and why I am drawn to these concepts.

What follows is somewhat of a dissertation, so for those short on time, interest, or attention span, you may kindly skip to the end.

Purpose

European Stone DovecoteBuild it and they will come…  Both simple and sublime, a dovecote is a man-made structure intended to attract birds to roost (usually doves or pigeons).  The birds benefit from the safety and shelter, which protects them from natural predators and provides an ideal place to raise their young.  Humans benefit from the birds’ residence in various ways:  Eggs were used for food; down feathers helped create pillows and bedding; and droppings were a prized source of fertilizer (often traded or exported), used to tan leather, and a key ingredient in gunpowder among other things.  Birds could also be used as a source of meat, especially when farming slowed down or feed for domesticated animals was sparse.

A no less important historic objective of the dovecote was to enable the Messenger Birdstransmission of all kinds of messages, including military information.  These birds were the means used to send information on the level of the Nile floods or rise of a new Pharaoh in ancient Egypt.  They were also the way the names of the winners of the Olympic games in ancient Greece were announced.  In De bello gallico Julius Caesar himself describes this method of sending dispatches to his lieutenants.  The same techniques were used in Europe by Saracens and Crusaders, for example, and continued through World War II nearly to present day.

Human Origins

Ancient Dovecote - IsraelArcheological records show dovecotes dating back to the earliest traces of recorded history.  It is likely that Neolithic humans created the first dovecotes as far back as 10,000 years ago in and around the alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, alongside their initial efforts to cultivate cereal crops and domesticate animals.  Indeed, these beautiful structures are one of the first true examples of sustainable living.  They parallel the advent of farming as a great springboard of modern civilization, and their production of continuously renewable resources allowed ancient humans who had been limited to small nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers to stop roaming, settle in one place, and build permanent homes.  People were able to repurpose their large brains that had been used to outsmart migratory animals and instead develop written languages, musical and artistic expression, advanced approaches to math and science, and complex family and community structures.

Mesopotamian stone tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics document the existence of dovecotes over 5000 years ago.  They are referenced in the Old Testament of the Bible, and ancient Romans are believed to have introduced dovecotes (originally called columbaria) to Europe, with evidence dating back 2000 years in England.  Here their use was often limited to nobility and thus prominently featured as part of an estate’s architecture.  However, these structures were similarly used by nearly every other significant historical civilization including the Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Persians.  Similar records indicate the use of dovecotes in early Chinese and Indian history as well.

Coincidentally, it was this newfound ability to settle and think that also lead to another of ancient humanity’s great ideas:  Wine.  The rich fertilizer from dovecotes is famous for its role in the cultivation of both ancient and present-day vineyards.

 Ancient Dovecote - Rome
First century BCE Mosaic of Scene with Egyptian Columbarium (Dovecote)
for Breeding Doves and Pigeons found in Palestrina beside Rome
Ancient Dovecote - SudanAncient Sudanese mud-brick Dovecote Ancient Dovecote - GreeceGreek Dovecote on the Island of Tinos Dovecote at OxwichMedieval Welsh Dovecote at Oxwich
Symbolism

In addition to its original meaning, as it is currently defined a dovecote symbolizes harmony and cooperation among a group of people working together.  It isn’t difficult to understand how these inferences are drawn, considering the way these busy birds must have been observed throughout history.

But Plato had long ago also been metaphorically compelled, further imbuing meaning and imagery through his Theaetetus: Part I of The Being of the Beautiful (197.d-e, 198.b), where he famously uses the dovecote as a symbol for the mind, with the birds representing knowledge itself:

Socrates:

…So now once again let’s make in each soul a kind of dovecote of all sorts of birds.  Some are in herds apart from the rest, some in small groups, and some are alone and fly through all of them in whatever way they happen to.

Theaetetus:

Let it have been so made.  But what follows from it?

Socrates:

We have to say that this vessel when we’re children is empty, and instead of the birds, we must think of knowledges.  Whatever knowledge one acquires and confines in the enclosure, one has to say that he has learned or found the matter (pragma) of which this was the knowledge, and this is to know.

Literature

Dovecote; Or the Heart of the Homestead - BookPossibly my favorite reference along the path of research into dovecotes comes from the early American author and journalist George Canning Hill (1825-1898).  Hill was a master biographer and originally chronicled the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Benedict Arnold, Daniel Boone, Captain John Smith, among others.  He also penned several novels of fiction in beautiful prose, painting vivid literary images of American life during the pre-industrial age of pioneers and homesteaders, an era which served to galvanize the foundation of American individualism and self-sufficiency.  In 1854 Hill published Dovecote; or The Heart of the Homestead with this prefatory text:

People are all very much like birds, in so far as they are given to nest building. Some build nests of hopes, and perch them so high that little is the wonder the winds and rains beat them, in time, to pieces. Some build nests of fears, and, like the foolish ground birds of the pastures, squat them where they might most tremble for their being trod upon. Only a few, I ween, build nests of memories, like the doves about the old barns, or the swallows under the home eaves, or the redbreasts among the apple trees.

I have been building here only a nest of memories.

It is a home nest—into which any one may look from out his chamber window. If it is large enough for but a single world-wearied heart to brood in, it will not have been built in vain.

Hill closes his novel with the following sensual depiction of what lay between the first and last page:

All these are among the versicolored memories of old Dovecote. There is that rosy tint still hanging over the roofs; there are those streaks of sunshine streaming through the windows across the floor; there are those same white and blue smokes, sailing up from the chimneys to the sky; and these memories intertwisted with them all, like threads of light, azure and golden, that are swiftly flying on the shuttles of thought through the life-warp.

The glorious home sunrises and the gorgeous sunsets are but living pictures all, off of which the heart may feed and never be full. The white moonlight glimpses of the evenings are but soft and tender murmurs in the sensitive ear of memory, filling its chambers with lulling melodies like the music of flutes.

Far apart as this and the old time are, I can see the red sunset burning in the Western windows, and gilding the crests of the towering elms. The entire spot is inframed and set about as with burnished gold. And there the heart loves to rest itself, far from the dust of life’s highways, where nothing but peace sleeps ever in the leaves, and nothing but balm drops down from the branches.

Biblical References

It’s no secret that my own first name is of biblical origin, which makes its parables all the Noah's Daugher-In-Law in the Dovecote - painting by Mary Jane Q Crossmore interesting.  The account of Noah in Genesis is one of the most memorable and commonly referenced.  Noah kept doves on his Ark, presumably within a dovecote that he had built for the voyage.  As time went by he would send birds out to search for nest building material.  When a dove finally returned with an olive branch, Noah knew the flood was over and a time of peace had begun.

What’s in a Name

The land on which our ranch and vineyard sits is defined by far greater forces than its procession of historic guests.  It is not Spain, Mexico, France, Italy, or any other far-away fantasy.  In our eyes, it confidently speaks for itself through elemental expression, and transcends attempts to apply transient nomenclature.

It is, however, also a simple home for our family and a place where our children will grow up as we grow old.  It is a gathering place for friends, loved ones, and collaborators where we may share experience, exchange knowledge, engender memories, and, God willing, leave it better than we found it.

As a result of the opportune journey I’ve taken in an attempt to understand it entirely, I am confident that the symbol and meaning of the humble dovecote is what I wish for my family on the ranch.  We will honor the significance of this unique word that was scarcely known to me only months ago, yet played such a significant role in history.

From this day forward our ranch will be known as Dovecote.  It is my hope that our lives contribute to its meaning, and its meaning contribute to our lives.

 /Noah/

Dovecote overlooking a vineyard in Portugal


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