Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Feather on the Breath of God

“What can you possibly write that hasn’t already been written a million times over?”

That’s one of the criticisms my negative voice makes on a regular basis and sometimes it adds, with a devilish grin “…and with greater skill.” I am ready with my stock defence. “Nothing, but as Julia Cameron points out in The Artist’s Way, it needs saying again … and again and again and again.” Still, I needed convincing. Sir Isaac Newton paid me a visit. He'd just had his Eureka moment after he saw the apple fall - a vertical meeting a horizontal - and discovered gravity.

I’m up to my neck in horizontals and verticals and gravity at the moment. I’ve laid aside the revision of my novel while I try and verticalise a prostrate short story. I collect verticals in the form of feathers. I can’t pass by a fallen feather. I keep my collection in a glass and it lives on top of a bookcase.

We adopted a cat from the SPA (the official body in France for to the protection of animals). She'd been abandoned into a car park. When rescued, Keeksies was a teenager, but weighed in at just under 2lbs, about the same as a bag of sugar. Her toy, in the small cage in which she lived at the SPA, was a feather. Feathers are still her favourite form of delight. She is a night hunter. As I slumber, she sneeks along the top of the bookshelves and ransacks my feather collection.

On the day I met Newton I had pulled down the jar of feathers from the shelf and begun throwing them one by one for Keeksies’ amusement. (It’s one of the many ways I've found of avoiding writing). The feathers are all shapes, colours, sizes and have fallen from turtle doves, owls, wood pigeons, magpies, jays, blackbirds, hawks, seagulls … Some feathers I ‘know’ by the stories attached to them. Keeksies became crazed trying to catch them, leaping high into the air as they made their descent or pouncing as they hit the carpet. That’s when I had my own Eureka moment.

I noticed how not a single feather descended in the same way as another. Then that none ever fell to earth in the same way twice. As well as the manner, the speed of descent differed from feather to feather, even in two almost identical, white ones. The same feather never descended along the same trajectory twice, as its motion was also dictated by variables such as the force behind my throw and minute changes in air currents. This led me to ponder how there are no two creatures, nothing in nature, identical. Even ‘identical’ twins. while sharing the same DNA, have different fingerprints. And, not for the first time, in contemplating Nature, I marvelled at Creation.

I googled ‘feather’ on the Internet and marvelled even more when I learned of the sophistication of the structure of a feather, the multiplicity of its uses. Everybody has experienced the insulating qualities of down, but I didn’t know feathers could also be a bird’s own food supply. I was awestruck by a 40 million years old fossil of a feather. There was this degree of biological engineering 40 million years ago, in a single feather? If a simple feather is this complex, how much more is the human body and brain?

A phrase came to mind, from a saying attributed to 11th century visionary Hildegard of Bingen. “Underneath all the texts, all the sacred psalms and canticles, these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.”

I have some CDs and a book including illustrations of Hildegard's visions. I hunted them out and as her music rose and fell with my thrown feathers, it came to me how it is so that there are a limited number of 'important' concepts, archetypal themes, that need expressing again and again, but that they would always be expressed uniquely by each individual writer. The forces that come to bear and their interplay, will always vary. Because of our individual uniqueness.

That other use for a feather did not escape my notice – as writing instrument. In my fancy a shivering plume scoops up thoughts from the atmosphere with its 'vane', filters them through its 'rachis' and by some miracle (I don't think it's by gravity) they become words on a sheet of paper. I think (though writing into a computer is more humane to geese), a computer will never replace the poesy of a quill pen.

Ann Isik
writing The Laurel Grove Mysteries
Book One: Flint and Feather


  1. Lovely post, Ann. In our writers group we give feather awards for authors achieving a milestone in their career. Now I know why the symbol is so appropriate. :)

  2. Ann, interesting post! Thanks for sharing with us today :-)

  3. Thanks for the kind responses. That's interesting about the feather award Alice. Funny, it just occurred to me that the short story I'm revising is called 'The Finch'. I hope all this featheriness will bring on a 'milestone' moment ...

  4. Very encouraging and beautifully said. Thank you, Ann. (Why isn't your picture in the column to the right?)