Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Cardinal is a Metaphor

     One of my favorite short stories to teach ninth-graders is The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. They are quite engaged in the novelette, perhaps because birds of all kinds are all around us all the time. Upon reading the story, we can't help but take a second look at our feathered companions that often make up familiar wallpaper in our surroundings, whether rural or urban. Of course, no study of the story is complete without experiencing selected scenes from Hitchcock's 1963 classic by the same name. The two are similar and different enough to provoke analysis.

     We have a bird feeder in our backyard. The feeder is a sturdy metal triangle built so that birds can roost in a center portal and nip seeds from within it, or they can grasp at the screening on the sides and peck through it for bites of seeds. Hanging from a metal shepherds hook, the feeder is frequented largely by male and female Northern Cardinals.

   Recent stories of the Pope's retirement have made me curious about the familiar birds. The new Pope will be elected by Cardinals in Rome. Reading the plan to elect a new Pope alerted me in the same way that viewing The Birds will anthropomorphize birds and attribute human motivations to them, including cardinals. As I watched and listened to the sweet whistles of my cardinals at the feeder, I began to wonder whether the bird is a metaphor for the priest or the priest for the bird. I sincerely began to think about the traits of these brilliantly red birds and guess at which behaviors caused clergy to be named for them.

     With very little research, of course, I was able to determine that the bird is named for the clergy and not the other way around. What fascinated me the most, however, was finding out that the Northern Cardinal, the handsome bird in my back yard, had his name changed as recently as 1983! Reflecting on the various names of all the birds in  du Maurier's work, jackdaw, gull, starling, finch, lark, oystercatcher, redshank, sanderling, and curlew (to name just a few), I am curious about the origins of these names and the recency with which they were coined.

   Understanding a metaphor develops problem solving analysis skills in our students. Making one is a wonderful way to use critical thinking and reasoning in a creative task. And to think that a bird as distinct as the Northern Cardinal has a relatively new name! This is so promising; it gives me hope that there are opportunities for our young scientists and artists to label birds themselves. I think the next time I observe a bird with a student, maybe even my own child, I will ask, "If you were to call that creature any name besides bird, what would it be?Why?" There is a metaphor in that question.

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