Tales from the landfill: flocking together

I found a feather, just laying there on the ground. In folklore, it means I’m going to have a lucky day or maybe just a good day. Folklore can sometimes be a little uncertain about these things. But I feel lucky.

When I find a good feather I consider it a lucky day and who knows, I might even be luckier. I have always been fascinated by feathers. They are crisp and very feathery as well as soft and remarkably light. I find it a little mysterious

I picked it up and smoothed it out. It was a flight feather, probably a magpie. It was a molted feather so it would be a year old and if you looked at it closely you could see some of the wear and tear. We have a lot of birds in the north and most moult once or twice a year and grow in all new feathers. So now you’d think we’d be knee deep in feathers, but we’re not.

Every now and then you can find the occasional feather, but that’s about it. What happens to everyone else, no one seems to know? Maybe some critters eat them or take them away to line their own nest, but many just seem to disappear or disintegrate in some way.

I know not everyone is amazed or fascinated by feathers, but they should be. They are a marvel of design, engineering, functionality, beauty and natural science. Not only are the feathers themselves interesting, so are all the uses humans have made of them. Thousands of years ago, someone held a feather in their hand and decided to stick it in their hair or on a hat just for fun and for decoration. The idea caught on and people still do to this day. It just seems like a normal, natural thing to do. Just look at the Royals and their fascinating hats with huge feathers in some of them.

Someone else had probably plucked a lot of birds and decided that I bet that would make a nice soft pillow or woven into a blanket that they would make it toasty warm. People even started making down-filled jackets and pants, and winter parkas were invented. The down is remarkably warm.

Feathers have radically changed the history of mankind. In the Stone Age, many people made bows and arrows for themselves. The problem was that the arrows weren’t shooting straight. A genius at the time looked at a feather and thought that attaching a few to the back end of the arrow might make it work better and damn it, he did. It’s called the empennage and it changed hunting and warfare with bows and arrows forever. I don’t know how they stumbled upon this innovation, but it’s hard to think of an arrow with no feathers on one end.

Long before computers, ballpoint pens, or fountain pens, someone was trying to write using probably a brush. For some reason they tried using the end of a quill and it worked, but you had to dip it into the inkwell a few times to get a single letter. Someone took a knife and sharpened the point and cut the hollow end of the main spine of the feather called the calamus. It would hold more ink so you could dive in much less often and write whole words all at once. It was a major revolution in writing and the literary arts. This invention was called the feather. People wrote this way from the 6th to the 19th century. It has been over 1,300 years. Wow. Talk about something that has lasted. It was only replaced when people figured out how to make metal tips, which eventually led to the ballpoint pens or gel pens we have today.

Every time I look at a feather I wonder what else it could be doing. He surely still has a few things to teach us. They are so good at keeping us warm, helping our arrows shoot straight and wonderfully if you love calligraphy. I still think there is a lot to learn from them and remember, if you find a feather it’s your lucky day!


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