Strange Things in the Sky Department: Feathers (without Birds)

JF Ptak Science Books    Strange Things in the Sky Department  

In the 30 or so posts I’ve made in this department I have yet to deal with anything having to deal with birds. This is understandable since they’re the ones who have been up in the air for 200+ million years (or at least late Jurassic), while humans have been in the air for only about .0001% of that time in our controlled falling.  

Feathers detail

[Source: Allan Hume, Stray Feathers, a Journal of Ornithology for India.…1879, American Museum of Natural History, here.]

But it still struck me as odd, these feathers in the air, and very uncommon to my decades+ experience of Looking At Pictures. They are simply a gilt-stamped decoration in a book cover, a piece of arresting design, for an ornithological journal (see below)–still, it is an unusual image, in-context or not. 

I imagine that if you were resting on this little body of water from the journal cover and one of those feathers happened to fall on you that it would be quite the experience.  But there was a time when receiving a feather meant something far worse than an unusual natural history experience. That was the other thing about this unusual book cover decoration–it reminded me of a piece I read a few years ago (found again!) by Francis Beckett of The Guardian who tells a very difficult story about his grandfather receiving a white feather from a complete stranger on the street during WWI.  The brief story here is that his grandfather tried to enlist in 1914 but was not accepted because of poor eyesight and also being the father of three girls; but, while out and about in 1916 he was handed a white feather from a woman on the street, a complete stranger–that feather at the time being a symbol for cowardice.  Evidently the grandfather went the next day to enlist, and after millions of deaths the eyesight/children issue two years earlier was no longer an issue–he was accepted,  and fought for two years before being killed in 1918.  Beckett’s grandmother held the white feather woman responsible for her husband’s death.  

The feather has meant many things to many cultures for thousands of years, and nearly all of it was good:  ascension, lightness of being, virtue, glory, flight, and so on, mostly having to do with cosmic connectivity.  On the other hand using the white feather for taking flight from duty and cowardice was a devastating thing.  

And the full image:


[Source: Allan Hume, Stray Feathers, a Journal of Ornithology for India.…1879, American Museum of Natural History, here.]

By: JF Ptak Science Books
Via: Feedbin Starred Entries

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