This morning as I was making my “constitutional” around the yard—watering the plants, pulling a weed or a stick or a rock here and there—when I was surprised by a bright red bird cutting across the backyard. I watched it fly at eyelevel across the yard and light in a plum tree on the corner of my property. I quickly recognized that it was a scarlet tanager…the first one I’ve seen since I was 8 or 9. It was so brightly red that anyone would call it scarlet, with its wings folded back black and neat. It preened a second, long enough for me to distinguish it from other less-red birds that I see more commonly: cardinals and red-headed woodpeckers and even red-winged blackbirds (disappointing birds, because the wings are not red, but are topped with a shoulder of red). The male cardinals are completely and brightly red, but a cardinal’s red compared to the tanager is like my bank account compared to Oprah’s. It preened a second and was gone down the street into the trees. Stunningly beautiful.
But like Proust tasting the madeleines, I was instantly transported to myself as that 8- or 9-year-old boy, because when I saw my first and only other scarlet tanager, I was in the backyard of my boyhood home on a summer morning with my mother and when that tanager lighted on a log—I can see it in my mind as if it were happening now—I was equally stunned and I said to her, “Mom, what’s that?” When she instantly knew its name, “That’s a scarlet tanager,” she said, I was as amazed at my mom’s omniscience as at the beautiful bird. Of course, the complexity and poetry of the name added to the whole glorious moment… “a scarlet tanager,” a two-part name that distinguishes the degree of the red. I can see my mom and the backyard…it too was two-part, with the yard that was immediate to the house and then one step up into what we called “the field,” an expanse of grass large enough for shagging fly balls or playing good games of kickball, edged with a typically South Jersey pine forest and separated from the forest by logs encircling the field. The scarlet tanager had perched on one of the logs, looked about nervously as birds always do, and then she, too, was gone into the woods. I could almost feel my mother’s grip on my hand, as if we stood watching this tanager again together. Wouldn’t that be nice, my standing holding my mother’s hand…except this time I’d say, “Hey mom, another scarlet tanager!” as if the 53 or 54 years were just a flash. But my point, really, is how red birds can distinguish themselves by degree of red…this magically scarlet bird that made other red birds seem only to be pretending.
I find that kind of difference regularly…I’ve seen movies and read books, I’ve seen paintings and heard songs, I’ve been places and tasted foods and drunk wines and smelled flowers that have each defined for me what the essence of things is: a movie that rises to the degree a movie can reach; a book that rises to the degree a book can reach…etc. I’ve known people who rise to that degree, too…too few, but I’ve known them and know them…people who rise to the degree a person can reach: vision, compassion, integrity. Like the scarlet red of the scarlet tanager.