Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bird Brain

 This past Wednesday was a long day working at the doctor's office and in the evening I wanted to do something to distract myself from feeling bombarded by personalities. So I took out the watercolor paints. Now, before you go thinking, "Hey, I didn't know Jen could paint!"  I can't. I took a class up in Bangor, ME in 1998. I painted some lemons and limes artfully resting near a blue aluminum can and it looked like a 3rd grader did it. But I still have all the brushes, paper and paints and what's not to love about making colors appear on paper. I tried to paint a sunflower.  Fail.  I tried to paint some trees. Fail.

So, I decided I'd paint some letters because that seemed fail-safe. I did Chip's name. Then I felt like changing it to "CHIRP".  That made me want to paint a little bird. Fail. Then I painted "CHOP" and the same orange bird (Fail) with it's head chopped off. The major success was flicking droplets of red paint from my brush to simulate blood. That's a satisfying watercolor "technique". So, anyway... I randomly painted a weird picture of a decapitated bird. 

Apropos of nothing above: I follow a blog by a writer named Vivian Swift. She did a great art journal book called When Wanderers Cease to Roam. She likes to find blue jay feathers. Sometimes when she's down-in the-dumps she talks about asking the universe to help her pay attention to the small, beautiful things in unexpected places. Sometimes she asks the universe to put a blue jay feather in her path and then often she finds one. She likes to write about that. And I am a sucker for those kind of stories because I have a feather finding feature. Some might call it a flaw. I'm obsessed with them. I find them all the time when we hike. People are amazed at how I can spot them and how they seem to find me. I've had them literally float down from the sky into my waiting hand. There have been times when I'll think, "it's been a while since I've found a feather...I hope I see one today on this hike." and then 5 steps down the path...there will be a feather. I know it's just coincidence, but secretly I imagine it's my special "gift". Wow...what a rockin' super power. 

Also seemingly apropos of nothing above: Today I really wanted to go for a big hike someplace exciting. Like in the Whites or the Greens, up a big mountain with big views and big wow factor. But for a bunch of reasons it didn't happen. (up too late, slept in, roads to all the places I love are closed, entire forests still closed). So I went to Springweather Nature Area.  An elderly man and his dog were heading out for a walk at the same as I was and we talked for a few minutes. He suggested I turn left on the path down below and walk to the bench for a really stunning view of the reservoir.  I was walking along enjoying the beautiful breeze and temperature, enjoying time alone. Thinking meandering thoughts. Thinking about Vivian Swift and her blue jay feathers. I jokingly, in my head, "asked the universe" if it might be able to put some feathers in my path today. In a few minutes I arrived at the bench the old man had told me about. I was going there to see the view of Irene's flood water line. The North Springfield dam saved my town from Irene's flooding destruction.  Thank you, North Springfield dam and reservoir.

 I sat in the warmth of the sun and gawked in amazement until I decided it was time to head in the other direction.  And that's when it happened. Walking back on the opposite edge of the woodsy road, something in the weeds and twigs to my left caught my eye. Instantly I knew - male cardinal feathers and lots of them! This was clearly the site of a bird murder. 

So, I did what any feather-loving, crime scene investigator would do, I took pictures, collected samples and generally studied the scene in great detail. This kill was very fresh; some of the quills were still dark and wet inside. The piles of downy feathers, flight feathers, tail feathers hadn't yet blown apart from each other. I picked through them, examining their beauty and variation. I put a few into my coat pocket. I was pretty sure I could even identify feathers that would have been part of the bird's crest. I moved around to the other side of the scene for a different look and there it was....jackpot! 

Anyone who knows me knows my fascination with dead things. Anyone who knows me will easily guess what I did next. Yep, you got it!  I picked it up by the beak. The eyes were closed, of course, but not yet sunken in. There was still weight of  bird brains inside. The back of the head was clean of feathers, exposing a hemisphere of yellowish white skull-orb. When I woke up this day I never imagined that by noon I'd be holding the head of a recently dead male cardinal. I wanted to keep it. Yes, you read that right. I wanted to wait for the feathers and flesh to decay and then to have a bird skull. So I started walking with it down the path toward my car where I was going to leave it while I continued on my walk. But then I saw the elderly gentleman I'd met on my way in. Our trajectories would coincide shortly and he'd see me holding a bird head by the beak. Also, I was afraid his dog might want to eat it. Awkward, to say the least. So, I did what had to be done. I unzipped the upper chest pocket on my windbreaker and dropped the cardinal's head inside. 

With my treasure safely stowed, I decided to continue on my walk without stopping at my car. For another hour I walked, took pictures and had a lovely afternoon. I chuckled to myself once in a while but felt occasional bits of nervousness about the mental health of someone going for a walk with dead bird parts in her chest pocket. 

So, the lessons for today are obvious. You don't need to go far away or to mountains to find fascinating things to spark your wonder. The routine nature walk place right down the street has wonder and beauty to spare if you're willing to look for it. Second lesson, be careful what you ask for from the universe. You just might get it tenfold. Third lesson, stuff that seems apropos of nothing can sometimes end up making a curiously serendipitous story. 

Two photos to cleanse the mental palate from all that dead bird head talk:

This is not a Oz. This is not a photoshop trick. It really looks like this. 

I peeled up a leaf to see its imprint. I love that it looks like a black and white photos except for the the rusty, pink hue of the real leaf in the upper left edge


  1. You know, right now, the eerie nature of things in post-Irene Vermont aren't easily described. But somehow, between the photos and your journal entry, you have captured it. And for that reason, I actually feel calm. I feel like I am not alone in the strangeness that was once home. That moment when Dorothy Gail opens the door to her house and steps into the colored world beyond ---which is real?--- it's like that right now, but in reverse. Great swaths of green pasture are suddenly grayed-out like old photos. Everything feels upside down. Everything seems to have vanished suddenly, quite like your cardinal, with colorful remanants here and there; like feathers. It's a strange time.
    And then there's the leaf imprint. It reminds me of the amber we were talking about.
    Thanks for your essay, and your photos. The mud line truly captures how I feel right now.

  2. Thanks for getting it, M. I knew you would.