When one thinks of the Northern Cardinal it is usually the male that comes to mind. The bright red of its plumage, the familiar melody of its song, the nobility of its crested pate awaken the recognition of beauty in all but the most hardened heart. And it is the male Cardinal that has become a symbolic reminder for many of the continued presence of our loved ones lost to death. Northern Cardinal (female)Poised near my backyard feeder, this female Northern Cardinal endures a drizzling rain between visits for sunflower seeds at "Frogmore Feed & Seed"
Though subdued in hue (all the better for keeping nest sites hidden from those who would consume eggs or hatchlings) the female is, to me, just as gorgeous. Her crest stands to me equally symbolic, her earth-toned plumage just as attractive as her suitor's. Cardinals are ubiquitous and numerous but much appreciated nonetheless. Never let the fact that they are common - that is, frequently seen - lead you see them as common, as in unrefined or unworthy of consideration. Notice them with joy!
Always touched by that beauty it was discomfiting to see one of our American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal recently. (See photos at bottom of this page) The initial reaction of course was shock. How could anything kill and consume this messenger of beauty? But that sentiment was quickly replaced by fascination. You see, in their own primordial way alligators too are beautiful creatures, and I knew this moment was a gift to me as a photographer and appreciative observer of the natural world.
It was only later, as I processed these images that questions arose. Only then was I able to contemplate the meaning of what I had witnessed and my reactions to it. Every creature whether large or small, beautiful or plain to the human eye, is subject to predation. I know this is true because I have witnessed such scenes played out many times. Yet somehow I am moved by it still. Perhaps i react so strongly because I am reminded of my own mortality. Perhaps more disturbing is the realization that I am more than an observer. Like it or not, I am a participant in the natural order. The human body too is subject to the cycles of life and death, each molecule recycled and reused.
And so I ask, "Is this young alligator brutal? Is it evil for destroying a creature of beauty and symbolic meaning?" Of course not! it is just an alligator manifesting the fullness of "alligator-ness". Any attempt to impose ethical considerations leads me to the conclusion that only autotrophs are ethically pure, as the life of every heterotroph (including humans) depends upon the destruction of another living thing. (Amusing side question: which is ethically more 'pure', eating a carrot thoughtlessly, or consuming an oyster with thanksgiving for its sacrifice?)
Somehow though, what is most moving about the encounter that day is deeper than all that, beyond all explanation and definition. I like the way Therese Doucet put it in A Lost Argument:
"I want to see the world without explaining away its mystery by calling things wicked, righteous, sinful, and good. I want to erase in myself the easy explanations, the always mendacious explanations about why things happen the way they do, and in this way, to come to know the mystery of being--not by any approximation in thought but by being. I want to be and not be ashamed of being."
I am grateful that little female Northern Cardinal was able to be beautiful for awhile. I am thankful she now nourishes another who is able to manifest beauty as an American Alligator. I am moved to awe that I was able to be there in that intimate, precious moment.
Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting! Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting! Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting! Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting! Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting!
It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. Henry David Thoreau