Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dreaming and perceiving

The scarlet tanager
is an otherworldly bird. "Scarlet" is far too tepid a word to describe the male's plumage. You can stare as long as you like at him, but your mind still flails trying to decide how to perceive the hue, how to categorize it. It is a color rare anywhere, in nature or the manufactured world. Only having seen scarlet tanagers in birding books, it was a dream of mine to see one in real life. I don't think they're all that rare, but rather hard to spot because they are a bit secretive up there in the foliage.

It seems implausible that such an outlandishly tropical-looking animal would ever exist here, even in the summer . . . but they do wise up in winter and go to South America.

The other night, a scarlet tanager came to me in a dream, joining a gaggle of the fantasy birds that occasionally rise up from my unconscious in my sleep. Next morning, I was in a small patch of oaks and pines, looking for birds. I was with an uncannily intuitive birder who, having no idea about my dream, mentioned what joy it would be to find a scarlet tanager here. Thirty seconds or so later, a bird gave a beautiful call. And there he was, a male scarlet tanager, in all his vermilion glory. I couldn't even call myself a novice birdwatcher at that point: I was just an awestruck person who happened to have a pair of binoculars in my hands.

On an ordinary day, spotting birds involves exercising facets of human perception that we often don't have a chance to use in modern life: judging depth, distance, speed, height, subtle markings, minute color variations and patterns, the way that sound travels, the optical effects and illusions different types of light create. We have a vast array of talents for looking and hearing; this, though, was perception of a whole other order. Unconscious perceptiveness. There must be so much we know without even realizing that we do.

I wish I took the picture on this blog posting. Instead, I searched the net and found this spectacular one. But despite some digging, I couldn't find out who took it so I could ask permission. Whoever you are, it's a beautiful picture, and I hope you don't mind that I used it.


  1. Hi Vanessa
    What a beautiful little bird. It does look like it belongs in the tropics. It's odd but red can be very difficult to spot against green sometimes. Have you read Nick Earls, "48 Shades of Brown"? It's not intellectually stimulating but is entertaining, funny and a bit perceptive.
    Bye Andrea

  2. Such a Beautiful bird. Lately with all my artwork I find myself drawing birds.