Susan     25 July, 2006, 11:05 am
Susan's First Blog: A Cardinal Idea

A bright red cardinal started tapping on my studio window last week. Before long he was throwing his body against the window and pecking harder. He returned several times that day and repeated this strange behavior. That evening I searched the Internet for "crazy cardinal behavior" and read two listings describing similar antics; later that night I got out my bird books and found that this behavior is well documented. The prevailing theory is that the male cardinal sees his reflection in the window, assumes that his territory is being threatened, and proceeds to attack the offending reflection. If this were a political blog I'd be tempted to make an analogy between the cardinal's behavior and the bird-brain behavior of some world leaders, but this blog is about the inspiration for my Literary Calligraphy art work.

Nature and literature are two important sources of inspiration for my work. Most of the time I start with a text, poem, quotation, Bible verse, letter, diary, or journal entry. Quite often I turn to nature to illustrate or illuminate the text. I have been painting the literary flower for more than twenty years and the literary bird for about five. I started painting birds when I read a passage in Thoreau's journal about a purple finch. Thoreau wrote that it reminded him of forgotten things and that many a serene evening lies snugly packed under its wing. To me this is an essence of bird watching or any nature watching, many serene moments. I have painted three birds to date, the purple finch, common yellowthroat, and an English robin. In all cases, the words came before the bird, but now this cardinal is tapping, tapping on my studio window.

Maybe he wants me to paint him. I don't have a text, but I have started my research. The Northern Cardinal, "Cardinalis cardinalis," is unique to North America and is relatively new to the American literary scene. In 1885 its range did not go beyond the Ohio River; it reached the southern Hudson River Valley by 1910, and it wasn't until the 1940s that the cardinal population in the northeastern U.S. exploded, due in part to winter feedings at bird feeders. So I'm probably not going to find mention of cardinals in the writings of many of my favorite American writers prior to the 1900s, and anything published after about 1916 is likely under copyright protection. But it's a popular bird; seven states have chosen the cardinal as its state bird: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. I might find something.

Common names for the northern cardinal include red bird and Virginia nightingale, referring to its delightful songs. The bird book writes it "purdy, purdy, purdy," but I'm forever asking myself, "Did he say birdie, birdie, birdie, or pretty, pretty, pretty?"

The name "cardinal" comes from the officials of the Roman Catholic Church who wore bright red robes. These seventy ecclesiastical cardinals constitute the Pope's Sacred College and got their name from the Latin "cardo," or hinge, to signify that they are so important to the Pope that events "hinged" on their counsel. The Cardinals wore red to signify their elite status. Before synthetic dyes, red was much rarer than today and expensive; the bright red dye came from Mexican cochineal insects brought to Europe by the Conquistadors in 1519.

The cardinal flower, "Lobelia cardinalis," received its name from similar sources and for similar reasons. This showy flower grows wild on our farm and every year about this time I begin to anticipate my first sighting. They sometimes appear by the end of July; sometimes we must wait until August to see them. It all depends on the amount of rain. We've had ample rain so far this summer, and I'm looking forward to a gorgeous display.

The cardinal virtues were first identified by the British as the four natural virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. I'll save my reflections on the cardinal virtues for another day. In the meantime, I'll be searching for cardinal flowers and looking for cardinal literature, which seems to me a cardinal idea!
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