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)
- A small shelter for doves or similar birds to live in.
- 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.
|First century BCE Mosaic of Scene with Egyptian Columbarium (Dovecote)
for Breeding Doves and Pigeons found in Palestrina beside Rome
|Ancient Sudanese mud-brick Dovecote||Greek Dovecote on the Island of Tinos||Medieval Welsh Dovecote at Oxwich|
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:
…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.
Let it have been so made. But what follows from it?
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.
Possibly 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.
It’s no secret that my own first name is of biblical origin, which makes its parables all the more 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.