A strange history with its head in the sand

Dreambirds: The Natural History of a Fantasy By Rob Nixon Picador USA 256 pp., $23

Dreambirds" could not be more aptly named. The book begins with distant memories of the author's upbringing in Port Elizabeth, a settlement on the southern edge of South Africa. The town not only borders the ocean but a desert called the Karoo, meaning "Big Thirst" in the native tongue.

Enter the ostrich and its peculiar history. The big birds are native to the scrub desert and relatively easy to capture - they don't bury their heads, they just run in a large circle giving their predators multiple chances. They quickly became a valuable commodity in an otherwise barren landscape.

As with any lucrative commodity, and especially an uncommon one, there were uncommon characters involved. Word arrived in Europe of an enormous "golden goose," and hopeful immigrants, mostly Lithuanian Jews, arrived in the Karoo shortly thereafter. They built vast fortunes and feather palaces during the several decades that the Parisian-based belle poque fashion lasted.

One such settler, Max Rose, became "the world's wealthiest fashion farmer." Like many of the new arrivals, Rose began as a feather trader, walking several hundred miles per week to buy feathers to trade or sell at the feather "palaces." Eventually, he accumulated farms worth $300 million in today's money.

"In the quest for extravagance and upward lift," Nixon writes, "the ostrich feather had no rivals. A prime plume could tower 22 inches above the head.... The 1880s and '90s saw the dead come into vogue - most conspicuously, dead feathered things. These weren't just fussy hats, they were mobile museums."

During the heyday of this fashion, 100,000 tons of the Karoo's feathers were consumed annually, but it couldn't last. "The First World War may have knocked the ostrich boom on the head," Nixon writes, "but it was Henry Ford and Coco Chanel who together buried it." War interrupted trade and put shortages and excesses in perspective. At the same time, the extravagant hats couldn't fit in Ford's new Model T. Chanel's boyish style and helmetlike hats finished off the bountiful plumes.

The second ostrich boom in the late 1980s went the way of the first, after breeding pairs reached prices of $30,000. Nixon visited farms in America and South Africa while on assignment covering the elections after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

The book's strange, ostrich-like construction shifts to stories of activists' courage and tenacity during the apartheid years. One such activist was David Piedt of the "coloured community" in Outshoorn. His family struggled to own their own house only to lose it.

"We owned a house near the center of town," he tells Nixon. "It wasn't a grand place, but it was our own. Then one day, the officials came and told us: 'Out. You have to go.' They gave us 80 for the house. You couldn't negotiate."

The same thing happened to his grandmother. "Suddenly, we had no home, no land. We'd lost both houses to forced removals. My grandparents were already in their seventies. Both died - died from heartache - the year their house was seized. Two aunts also died after they'd been pushed out of their homes. People just couldn't see a way to go on living."

Other events this activist went through are equally dramatic and spellbinding, including multiple prison detentions and court battles just to retain his job. But just as the book starts to captivate us with stories of those who struggled and ultimately prevailed against apartheid, it ends like the ostrich booms.

*Jason Walters is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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