FEATHERS, no doubt, are serious business to a bird. But in the wide ranging potential for comic relief that nature certainly has, the serious can also be entirely frivolous. Who could be solemn about a bird of paradise's feathers - except perhaps another bird of paradise?
Other creatures can fly, but only birds have feathers. So birds preen and preen to keep their flight capacity in peak condition ... and then some of them, overwhelmed with self-delight, and considering all the trouble they have taken, dazzle the opposite sex with a display of ... feathers.
To humans - sadly featherless - feathers have become a powerful metaphor. We cook up figures of speech out of all their aspects. We have used them to stuff pillows, write letters, establish chieftainship, dust away cobwebs, and variously adorn our hats la Yankee Doodle or a la haute couture. And we have sometimes made high art out of our love of feathers.
Take Albrecht Durer, for instance.
In one of those rarish moments in the history of art where the "scientific" and the "artistic" come close to each other, Durer (1471-1528) made a number of supremely observed and meticulously presented studies of plants, animals, and birds. His capacity to reproduce in ink and paint the finest textures, surfaces, and colors of an iris, a hare, or the wing of a bird, has both fascinated art appreciators and set a standard for scientific illustrators.
His well-known depiction of the "Wing of a Blue Roller" (in the Albertina in Vienna) is one of these extraordinarily accomplished, detailed images. That feathers were among the small beauties of nature that he chose to paint is significant in a number of ways. It is as if he consciously accepted the tremendous challenge that feathers presented to accurate depiction; their demand for a supersensitive touch. He endeavored to reproduce with pen and brush the countless microscopic barbs and barbules that mak e up the intricacy of a feather's vanes, while at the same time keeping true to the varying softness, fluffiness, or sleek strength of the different kinds of feathers in the wing.
Possibly most fascinating to a painter is the color of the feathers. Their color is integrally bound to their texture and structure. Blues and greens, for example, are not actually pigmenation in the feather. Such colors are modified by the sheen and shimmer, as well as by the lie of the feathers.
The "Left Wing of a Bird," shown here, at first sight is very similar to Durer's "Wing of a Blue Roller." It is thought by some to be a later work by Durer, and by others to be among the best works of Hans Hoffmann (c. 1530-1591), who followed Durer and made copies of his work, often inscribing them with Durer's monogram and dating them wrongly. The wing in the Albertina is certainly the more incisively drawn, but the later one, depicting a quite different wing of the same species, seen from a different angle, also has its own marked quality. If it is by Hoffmann, it shows him to be much more than a mere imitator on this occasion.
Scientific illustrators today still make highly skilled depictions of separate feathers. In the book, "Tracks and Signs of the Birds of Britain and Europe," there are a large number of pages displaying feathers, scrupulously painted. However, the aim is not art; it is purely recognition.
Durer - and Hoffmann - while clearly obsessed with accurate observation, were no less preoccupied with the idea that art was, in its potential realism, a means for human skill and vision to express wonder. Art was a celebration of natural beauty. One recent comment on the "Left Wing of Bird" by Friedrich Piel refers to Durer's selection of vellum rather than paper for these nature studies. Piel remarks that "the colors retain their purity and glow more ardently on vellum than on paper" - hardly language that might be used to describe a scientific illustration.
The astonishing thing about Durer's nature paintings is that their realism, for all its extreme scrupulousness, is charged with great intensity of feeling. It is the passion, perhaps, of primary observation and a sheer relish of his own amazing ability to reproduce what his eyes saw. Feathers, even in the form of a biological specimen, carry powerful associations in the imagination of human beings. Their mix of functional elegance and downright showiness, their symbolism of the ethereal or the triumphant , their suggestion of the maternally protective or the martially striking, their attractivess or aggressiveness, and their dazzling or muted color - all these lift them out of the realm of mere nature study and into the realms of poetry and art.
In these realms, of course, feathers are hardly separable conceptually from the birds they exclusively belong to - unless they are reattached to the back of some emblematic female figure, a "Victory," an "Angel," or a personification of "Justice." These apocalyptic winged personalities, while obviously not actual people in any sense, figuratively invest human beings with something that we might not mind having: the ability to fly like a bird.
Perhaps the most frequent, broadly "artistic" use of feathers by the human imagination is in dress, or in accessories such as fans. The tendency for human costume to be a form of display more often than a camouflage has determined the kinds of feathers most often selected for this role - the glorious ones sported by birds of paradise, pheasants, ostriches, and peacocks. This is also one area where the so-called primitive societies and the so-called sophisticated ones run cheerfully parallel.
A Plains Indian headdress, for all its grand symbolism of status or heroism, can (a little mischievously) be seen as similar to the extravagantly osprey-plumed hat of some fashionable British Edwardian actress - though neither party is very likely to have admitted the comparison. Either way, the wearers are literally in borrowed plumes, and have adapted birds' attributes to fulfill their own notions of power or appeal, whether by means of vigorous, traditional tribal skills or the fey, opulent fantasies of the haute couturier.
Native North American artists have used feathers not only for symbolic dress but for quieter uses: Pomo baskets are sometimes softly lined with feathers (an idea borrowed straight from birds feathering their nests with down for their eggs and young). And from central California come Maidu feather blankets. These clearly imitate the insulating function of feathers on a bird. The naturalness of such useful crafted ideas links man very closely with nature. In Iceland, it is said that the eider ducks are so used to having the down harvested from their nests that they are not disturbed by the process, but allow the harvesters to take their share and then get on with laying and hatching as if nothing happened. Goose quills for writing were also thought to be best if cut from the living birds in the spring, presumably not harming the birds any more than a haircut does a human. Speaking of which, it strikes me that the punk inventiveness with hair shaping and coloration of the recent past are another way in which humans have copied birds - making hair behave like odd, showy plumage.
Of interest to today's conservationists, there were vigorous campaigns in the late 19th century by bird societies to counter the massacre of birds for the millinery trade. Long before the anti-fur lobbies of our own times, the Victorian and Edwardian fashions for osprey plumage, or the feathers of egrets and herons, elaborately crowning enormous hats, had bird lovers waging war against bird exploitation. A notable feather-in-the-cap for these campaigners came when, in 1906, Edward VII's queen, Alexandra,
forbad the use of osprey plumage at the British Court. But the final battle wasn't won by the preservationists until after World War I - and after many species had been severely depleted.
Ostrich feathers were an exception. They were farmed from 1865 on, and it was said that their feathers could be taken without hurting the birds. Perhaps if this had not been so, one of the more delightful dance numbers in a 1930s Hollywood movie might not have been what it was, and is.
Both Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire tell the story of the ruckus surrounding the feather dress in the film "Top Hat." It was the one she wears in the number, "Dancing Cheek to Cheek." He is "in heav-en" and she is in feath-ers. This upset was an event in which some feathers were definitely ruffled and other feathers flew. In short, Astaire didn't like this ostrich-feather-covered dress one bit. He described it as shedding like a chicken attacked by a coyote. Rogers admits, "Some of the feathers did flutt er and annoy Fred." But she was determined to wear it. "It moved beautifully."
She was quite right. It did, like a dream. Maybe it does upstage Mr. Astaire, just a little. It is certainly as unforgettable as this duo's dancing. Astaire got back by parodying the dance in "Easter Parade" with Judy Garland (I am informed).
In the end, all was forgiven, and according to "Ginger: My Story," Rogers' charming partner sent her a "gold feather" for her "charm bracelet" in a small white box, with a note which read: "Dear Feathers, I love ya! Fred."
I'm glad of that. It's hard to imagine anything more, well, feather brained than a row about feathers. Flighty and frivolous they may sometimes be, but they have much more to them than bubbles....
Perhaps the last (tersely ecstatic) word should go to Emily Dickinson. She wrote: "Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul,/ And sings the tune without the words,/ And never stops at all...."
I suppose she could have come straight out and said "hope's a bird" - but that is a thud rather than a lift. Her words glide into the imagination and out into the space where "thing" becomes metaphor and metaphor transmutes into idea. Mere "bird" would have missed the whisper, the airy weightlessness of the words she actually chose: "the thing with feathers."