Many years ago, after my wife and I suffered a family loss, I was alone with my grief in our courtyard when a cardinal arrived to break my solitude.
The small red bird didn’t resolve my sadness as he sat on a low branch and stared at me. But his presence reminded me that a broken world can still have some beauty in it, which is helpful to keep in mind when you’re at the bottom of an emotional well. I had been low for a number of days, but that few minutes out of doors with a bright, living thing pointed me along the path of healing.
What I felt that day was nothing new, I suppose. Some of our oldest stories include birds as messengers of some sort — sometimes of doom, but often of gladness. Think of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” on the dark side of the spectrum, and the more welcome dove that visits Noah’s ark and tells him the floodwaters have receded.
Noah’s dove came to mind a lot in recent days, as people around Louisiana deal with rising waters. We’d all like a little hope to arrive on feathered wings when times get tough.
Even before this month’s turn of bad weather, I’d been considering the question of how birds shape our lives as I read Arin Murphy-Hiscock’s new book, “The Hidden Meaning of Birds.”
Murphy-Hiscock is something of a mystic, maybe more inclined to see cosmic messages in the fluttering branches than I am. But I was obviously interested in what she had to say about the cardinal, a common bird in Louisiana.
Native American Cherokees, she tells readers, “believe that the cardinal is the daughter of the sun. Legend has it that if you see a cardinal flying upward toward the sun, you will have good luck. Conversely, if you see it flying down toward the earth, watch out for bad luck.”
An interesting concept, though the cardinal I saw those years ago in my deep sadness was going neither up nor down. Maybe that was an invitation to make my own luck, which we all ultimately have to do.
Murphy-Hiscock is even more enigmatic in discussing the chickadee, another favorite in Louisiana yards. Those of us who keep backyard feeders know the chickadee for its sharp black and white plumage, which resembles a tuxedo, and its daring in snatching seeds even when bigger birds are around.
Quoting folklore, Murphy-Hiscock says “that if a chickadee perches near your home, you will soon hear from a long-lost friend, or that there is a plot afoot against you.” That covers quite a bit of ground, leaving me puzzled about whether to like the chickadee or loathe it.
For now, I’ll just stick with Emily Dickinson’s oft-quoted observation that hope is a thing with feathers. This week, we could surely use all the hope we can get.