Stellar

Painting by John James Audubon.

It’s spelled differently, I know, after a German naturalist known otherwise for his scientific descriptions of obscure Arctic animals, including the now-extinct sea cow—and you wouldn’t think that the Steller’s jays would care how I spell their name in any case. But somehow each time they squawk with that voice of outraged determination I think they’ve got to have an opinion about pretty much everything: these are birds that brook no quarter, tolerate no fools, display all the attitude you’d expect of anyone who wears a punk topknot like that. Years ago, for example, I remember standing under tall fir trees on Whidbey Island engaged in an experiment in outdoor living that required filling out some kind of form, and a passing jay dropped a big, purple berry—sploosh!—right on the page as if to say Up yours! to all paperwork and rules and regulations.

Maybe, like the trickster Coyote, they are contrarian teachers, first and foremost. Maybe that long-gone bird’s kick-in-the-shins message to me, those many years ago, was that no matter how much good stuff we experience, what we may well end up recalling is, finally, the crap.

In any event, these birds live according to their own lights. And in this case that light is a chip of fallen sky, saturated iridescent blue. The purest ultramarine. In this regard, my misspelling is exactly right.

Whatever we call the color, their affinity with the sky is clear. Just watch one ascending a pine or fir, bouncing upward from branch to branch with no apparent effort of wing or leg despite its chunky shape, an elastic bounding aimed at reuniting with the place they all seem to have come from.

They live in all sorts of forests and suburbs around the West, as if to point out that the one resource in which the region is undiminished in our modern era of diminishments is the sky itself, and that maybe bits of it flake off due to the daily cataclysms of sunrise and sunset, the wear and tear and grinding of Earth’s atmosphere in its rotations. I know there is no science to this explanation, but I can tell you that on a brilliant mountain day the flash of the bird’s back and wings and tail is a color beyond colors, a hue and a cry, a shock of pure being that is nothing less than the sky broken up and reflected back to hungry retinas.

As with any mirror, what comes out depends on what goes in. One monsoon day in summer, with rain on the wind and the lowering sky that gray-green color of a ripened bruise, a jay was foraging on the ground under the lilacs, looking for God knows what, and honestly my first thought when I saw it was parrot, because what I saw was feathers the color of that ominous sky, a sickish tropical green that promised deep foliage and hidden fruits and somewhere off in the distance a weird rattling call. It was a reminder that, unlike other colors, the blue in bird feathers is not a pigment, but a reflection, an interaction of surface molecules with the light that splashes in. So try this thought experiment: what color would a Steller’s jay be in the absence of light? Not blue. Or: not-blue. No hue at all. Could it even exist without the light that animates its surface and dictates how we see it? Like all koans it’s a ridiculous question: a reminder that, when it comes to this wild creature, you can’t tease apart what it is from what it takes in.

Last week here in the yard the house wrens were going crazy—not such an uncommon occurrence, for they have a hair trigger, but still I had to look to make sure a cat wasn’t trying to make off with one of the fledglings—and I saw that the cause was a jay doing its hop, hop, hop up the spruce with what looked like a garish red chunk of plastic in its bill. A baby bird? I wondered. A Super Ball? The wrens scolded in outrage.

No, none of the above—it was a cherry from the tree that this summer bore fruit along the side that didn’t die. Paying no mind to the furious wrens, the jay gripped the berry, flashing a veritable red in its beak. A gulp, and it was gone.

Peter Friederici directs the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University. His latest book, with the photographer Peter Goin, is A New Form of Beauty: Glen Canyon Beyond Climate Change.

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