My Parrot and I

A prize-winning memoirist continues the tale of an animal-filled life.

“This is the story that wrote me,” observes Brian Brett of his engaging ramble of a book, Tuco: The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World. It is a story that combines personal observation and reminiscence with scientific argument and speculation, all in the service of exploring how humankind, in assuming (and, by assuming, asserting) its superiority over all other life forms on the planet, has gone astray and imperilled its own future as a species. It is a story arguing for empathy and respect toward these other life forms.

In his classic man-and-animal memoir My Dog Tulip, British author J.R. Ackerley had wondered, surveying the anxious suitors for his Alsatian bitch of the title, “Did they suffer from headaches?”

A seemingly innocuous question containing profound implications.

And just as Ackerley attempted to understand the nature of the canine, Brett turns his attention to Tuco, his pet African grey parrot of 25 years, at the same time allowing his thoughts to ponder the many other Others, the diverse species that are part of what he calls—a bit too repetitiously perhaps—this “scattershot” world. The current volume is part of “a three-headed memoir,” the first being Uproar’s Your Only Music, a mix of poetry and prose addressing the first two decades of his life, and the second Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, an account of his life on a farm on Salt Spring Island sometime later. Trauma Farm received the 2009 Writer’s Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize. Tuco represents a continuation from the earlier works and a kind of summing up. The explorations he makes, the conclusions he draws, invariably lead back to his own turbulent beginnings.

Brett’s fascination with this idea of Otherness clearly reflects his extraordinary and often stormy life as an Other. He grew up in British Columbia. His father was a London cockney who lost his left leg in an accident as a youth and somehow fetched up in Canada peddling potatoes. Brett was born an androgyne, meaning his testicles were undescended; he was an intersex, defined clearly as neither boy nor girl. It took 20 years—and much torment suffered at the hands of bullies and sexual predators—before he learned his medical condition had a name: apparently, the Kallmann syndrome, as that condition was known, can be caused by a damaged pituitary gland “and in my case appears to have had an impact on the hypothalamus gland beside it, a gland that affects emotional equilibrium.”

The diagnosis led to testosterone treatments; the scrawny youth became a burly man. He would go on to find love with a mother of two young boys—they married after living together 27 years—and become an author and farmer. But certain wounds from those early years never properly healed, both in the physical sense (osteoporosis, a corollary of the Kallmann syndrome, started to bedevil him in his teen years) and in the psychic sense—Brett continues to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Recognition of the syndrome produced its own anxieties, not least the time a doctor informed him he was unlikely to live past age 40. (He is now in his mid sixties.) “He thought he was being honest,” writes Brett. “Instead, he was cruel and probably had no idea that those casual words sent a flaming wound into my heart and forever changed the way I looked at the scattershot world.”

In those difficult, pre-diagnosis years, Brett had to learn survival skills. He was helped in this by a father whom he describes as “a one-legged illiterate Virgil leading me up through hell,” a father continually exhorting him to “be a man,” tough love Brett now looks back on with possibly more appreciation than he may have felt at the time.

But the years of childhood and adolescence were often hellish. “Born mutant,” he felt himself the complete outsider, a sense of alienation that fostered his early interest in bird life and growing identification with their Otherness. A eureka moment of sorts occurred at age 17 when he discovered a quotation from the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the poster child of Otherness. “Je est un autre,” declared Rimbaud—an exhortation to become what you write about. For Brett, his words became a moral as well as an artistic imperative.

Tuco emerges as quite a character. He is Brett’s “spirit guide,” possessed of a 500-word vocabulary, a lover of junk food, an excellent mimic and a trickster. Moreover, as a descendant of the dinosaur, Tuco represents a hardy vestige of tens of millions of years of evolution.

The theory and process of evolution and what Charles Darwin called its natural selection holds Brett in thrall. Tuco by virtue of his presence in the household, often seated atop Brett’s shoulder peering with him at his computer, becomes a cynosure for this fascination.

A recurring theme is Brett’s indignation at how human hubris and the greedy and heedless impulses accompanying it have created tragic consequences and, in many instances, irreparable environmental damage. Of the 372 species of parrots that exist today, for example, about one third face extinction. The pet trade is called out as a scourge. But Brett’s compass is much broader as he cites the evils of factory farming, trophy hunting and the many other predations he adduces and calls to account. Nor has he much time for the sentimentality of the anthropomorphizers or those “Samaritans” who capture wild cats, provide them with food and care, and then release them to prey again on endangered birds and animals. His empathy for birds and animals is born out of respect from one who has been a killer of birds and animals himself. The memory of a robin he slew as a boy with his new bow and arrow remains fresh. To Brett the subject of killing should involve considerations about necessity, methods and respect for your victim. Most of us, however sympathetic we may be to the holistic and empathetic approach at the core of Brett’s philosophy, remain distant from the actual mechanics of producing, say, the food we eat or the clothing we wear.

Distance allows us to shield our minds from thoughts about the holocausts of the chicken factories and the abattoirs. But this does not let us off the hook. Brett urges a reset of our awareness of the extraordinary varieties of intelligence in the world around us. To go on as we are, he suggests, raises the possibility of our own extinction within the evolutionary continuum.

“This is a memoir not a treatise,” Brett declares. Well, yes and no. Sometimes the scientific argument and history, not to mention the quotations cited from an eclectic bibliography, threaten to overwhelm the memoir-as-memoir. Still, I came to enjoy the digressions and unruliness of narrative. They seemed an apt metaphor for Brett’s idea of entropy as the governing principle of our “scattershot” existences. There is despair and anger in these pages to be sure but there is also much joy—and hope. Life, Brett is saying, is full of wonders. His book helps to remind us why.