Tuesday, February 12, 2019
The Cardinal and the Mona Lisa
I was walking along the river today. It has been snowing all February and so the world is full of this strange glow, not white exactly, almost grey, but a grey full of light. There was the ground, covered in snow, and I trudged, slipping along it, the ground giving away under my feet. There were the trees, weighed, ribboned, and outlined in snow. The river was as frozen as it could manage, and then it too was covered in snow. Grey, white, grey, white. And then there was a cardinal. There were several cardinals. Red, red. All alone in its red. Jewel red like fresh blood and Summer sour cherries.
I talk about birds that I see on my walks quite frequently in this space. I talk about turkeys and crows, robins, geese, and eagles. I mention the woodpeckers, and if I see a hawk I'll probably say something. But for a cardinal I'll hardly say a thing. It seems like cheating.
They are so red.
On a major industrial website of the Internet someone posed a question to the millions of people: "What's a tourist attraction you've been to that was 100% not worth the hype?" Among the top answers, that is, among the most popular and highly rated answers, was The Mona Lisa. They said it was small and insignificant. They said far greater paintings lurked unviewed nearby while crowds fought for a glimpse. They were unimpressed, these nameless denizens of the Internet.
I too have seen images of the Mona Lisa all my life. I have seen mock versions. I have seen it in its faithful reproductions. I have seen, in untold places, its ubiquitous image. There, even you too see it in your mind as I say its name. It is everywhere! But before I saw the Mona Lisa in person I had rather less the hype about it than the blowback from the hype: I had heard it is a small, not so impressive painting, that it's not up to its reputation and that the crowds ruin it anyway. And while I thought it a mildly interesting looking portrait in my picture book views of it, there were hundreds of paintings in the Louvre I was more interested in seeing. If not for the wisdom of my wife I probably wouldn't have taken the trouble to go see it.
It is incandescent. It is rich. It is meticulously painted and full of life. It is an absolute miracle of a painting. The person shimmers alive, 500 years later, in the small frame.
You just have to look at it. The real thing. There is magic there for the taking, but you do have to take the magic.
Like any magic.
I suspect that nearly every cheap nature calendar produced in the past fifty years includes, maybe for February or March, a picture of a cardinal in the snow, on a little branch, often with a couple colorful Winter berries nearby. It's a red bird, so brightly red, against the white snow. Who wouldn't take that picture? Why wouldn't you put it in your almost pleasant little calendar? It is pretty, but forgettable. It is not a strange or rare bird, especially to most of us North Americans. No one around here would have any more trouble identifying it than they would, say, The Mona Lisa. We've seen it a million times.
And so, when on a snowy Monday morning in February, with no birds around, a few cardinals fly by, I don't get excited. I am not amazed. It is business as usual. I have seen the calendar photos. I already know them.
But then, possessed by weariness perhaps, or having had enough of the endless blank white scene, I look into the grey-brown trees, into the flat glow of the snow. And there one is. A cardinal. The only color in a thousand miles.
And I have missed everything up until then.