Dooryard Eurydices

As daylight lengthens, dawn and dusk grow briefer. I’m already in mourning for their gradual demise. That’s what I like best about winter: these long dawns, slow to the point of luxuriousness – though I suppose it seems odd to use that word about such a frozen season. Days like today, when I sleep in until 5:30, I’m not out on my porch until a quarter to 6:00, by which time it’s tempting to linger long past the time when the coffee in my thermos mug begins to cool. (This is about as sybaritic as it gets for me, folks.) I especially like those minutes right before the sun comes up, when the trees are silhouetted against the clear eastern sky, which has progressed from black through indigo through lighter and lighter shades of blue until it appears almost white. The trees’ bare branches are outlined down to the smallest twig, the superimposed crowns creating (from my perspective) an intricate filigree, black on white. Unaccountably, I am in put in mind of graceful models lounging about in lingerie . . .

And it’s usually around this time of year that the northern cardinals add their voices to the still-rudimentary dawn chorus. They start tuning up in late January, but it’s not until mid-February that their contributions become a regular thing, triggered by the lengthening photoperiod. Theirs is not one of more spectacular bird calls, but there’s something cheerful and spring-like about it, and I guess I’m just happy for anything to listen to besides the supremely monotonous peter-peter-peter of the tufted titmouse. To my ear, most of the time what the cardinal is singing sounds like Purty purty purty. Peterson says: “Voice: Song, clear slurred whistles, lowering in pitch. Several variations: what-cheer cheer cheer, etc.; whoit whoit whoit or birdy birdy birdy, etc. Note, a short thin chip.” I believe I have heard all three variations, but I wonder – how can a whistle be simultaneously “clear” and “slurred”?

Despite its common name, the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) ranges from southern Ontario down to Central America. In fact, its expansion north out of Dixie dates only to the 20th century. It is the quintessential dooryard bird, denizen of brushy and edge habitats, and since it doesn’t migrate one gets to see it in all seasons. Both male and female cardinals are spectacular against the snow; I am especially fond of the female’s more muted tones. No fresh snowfall, no matter how gingerbread-y, seems complete until I have spotted both cardinals. Then, pure magic!

Evidently, at least some American Indians accorded the cardinal a prominent role in their sacred stories. According to John Bierhorst (the Mythology of North America, Oxford, 2002), “In an unusual Orpheus myth recorded among the Cherokee, the people of the ancient time are said to have tried to kill the sun because her rays were too hot. By mistake her daughter was killed instead, and the grief-stricken sun stayed in her house, causing darkness. In hopes of restoring the light, people traveled to the dead land and started carrying the daughter back in a box, not to be opened until they reached home. But before the time was up, they gave in to the young woman’s plea for air, opened the box, and watched her fly off as a cardinal. From this we know that the cardinal is the daughter of the sun. And if the people had obeyed instructions, there would be no permanent death, as there is now.”

James Mooney’s compendium, “Myths of the Cherokee,” published in the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1900, is available online at the Sacred Text Archive. Here’s the complete myth, Daughter of the Sun. This is a fun story, and very southern: it’s full of snakes and haints and the Little People, and the Sun is a total bitch – kind of a homicidal Scarlett O’Hara. There’s even a horned devil-type dude, and one can see the Native origins of the snake-handling cults: “Since then we pray to the rattlesnake and do not kill him, because he is kind and never tries to bite if we do not disturb him.”

According to Mooney, the Cherokees hear the cardinal’s song as kwish kwish kwish!

Update: A visit to the Encyclopedia Mythica confirmed my nagging suspicion that my original title, “Dooryard Persephones,” was in error. Orpheus’ babe was Eurydice. Interestingly, the parallel with the Cherokee myth extends as far as cause of death: Eurydice, too, was killed by a snakebite.

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