“Hope is a feather…”*
I’m holding a peacock feather as I write – a foot long, nearly weightless, and soft as silk. Feathers are dead. Like hair, they’re made of keratin, one of nature’s toughest proteins, sheer, light, and strong. My feather is durable enough to protect a bird, in this case, the peacock, fleeing through dense tangles of grass and brush. Birds get a new set of feathers every year. If damaged, they can shed them to make way for new growth. Maybe that’s where mine came from. Feathers are porous, made up of tiny microscopic air gaps. These huge volumes of air inside the feather are the secret to how precisely wing feathers keep birds in the air. Feathers act as a bird’s GPS system and oddly, they grow branched, like a tree.
If I haven’t convinced you to nominate feathers for the 2019 “7 Wonders of the World” list, get this.
My peacock feather’s gorgeous greens, brilliant blues, and loamy earth hues are the ultimate eye candy. Feathers have the most vibrant colors in the natural world, and while they’re important for sexual attraction and camouflage, their beauty led to the near extinction of many species of birds. For nearly three decades, starting in the 1870’s, there was an enormous global craving for feathers to adorn women’s hats. Snowy egrets were killed by the thousands for their brilliant white plumes, and the long delicate trailing nuptial plumes that grow off the backs of their heads during mating season, the aigrettes. Their mass killings left the earth looking snow covered. The grass roots campaign to end this savagery led to the formation of the National Audubon Society.
We use feathers to describe how light something is, e.g. “as light as a feather;” but interestingly enough, the extreme lightness of a bird’s feathers is more integral to sustained flight than its muscles.
The lightness and size of the golden eagle allows it to soar higher than any other bird. To the Native Americans, it’s a “spirit bird,” because it soars higher and can see and hunt better than any other, bridging two realms, heaven and earth. “The golden eagle is our messenger to the Creator,” notes Lee Plenty Wolf, a spiritual teacher in the Oglala Lakota tribe. Its feathers were, and still are, sacred, representing the highest values of trust, bravery, and honor.
I stroke my feather. It is exquisitely soft. Feathers are the softest thing nature produces. We cram duck and goose down feathers into pillows, duvets and mattresses, because they make the warmest and lightest types of clothes and bedding we use. Amazing how something nearly weightless is one of the most effective natural insulators known to us, and we’ve never been able to replicate them.
The world’s best-quality down is eiderdown, which comes from a wild sea duck, the common eider, whose feathers help it survive the harshness of the winter wind-whipped northern seas in the Arctic mudflats. Due to the eiderdown’s rarity, superb quality, and labor-intensive gathering, an eiderdown comforter can range anywhere from $3000 to $20,000. (Photo taken from “Ruddy: Living on the Wind,” – by Hasselbring, illustrator, Bruce DeVries)
I lay my feather down and reflect on the spirit bird, soaring high, bringing messages to the Creator. I remember other sacred figures of speech that have brought comfort and hope to many a weary pilgrim: “He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust.” (Psalm 91:4). And again, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles…;”(Isaiah 40:31)
Feathers – birds, and only birds, have them.
*“Hope is a feather that perches in the soul,” by Emily Dickinson
Sources – The Wonder of Birds by Jim Robbins
National Geographic Field Guide to Birds
Janet Hasselbring is a retired educator and musician. She resides in Spring Lake, MI with her husband and Welsh terrier, Maggie May. They winter in FL, where she is inspired to write her children’s books, featuring the wild/shorebirds of FL and beyond. She has also written a series about her family farm, Country Dairy. For additional musings on faith, surrender, vulnerability and wild/shorebirds, visit https://janethasselbring.com/blog/ or janhassebring.blogspot.com