Cardinals live in the woods near our house. The males are small, but stunning, especially in winter. They bounce around in the snow, radiant red on white. Unlike bluebirds that are more resolute, sitting stoically wherever they light, cardinal’s fidget, as if they were edgy, the way crooks behave before a heist, always looking over their shoulder, furtively.
My cardinals behave strangely.
One day I saw a cardinal land on the external rear view mirror of my car. He remained there while performing his ablutions. I thought little of it at the time.
I began to notice that the rear view mirrors of my car were smudged, and that there were bird droppings on the door panels below. Not giving it much thought, I assumed that some weary bird made a temporary layover on my car, relieving himself before resuming his flight. In the coming weeks it grew worse– the side panels of both our family cars became heavily littered with long white streaks of bird droppings, and the rear view mirrors were cloudy and soiled. What seemed an anomaly was now a regular occurrence.
At first I guessed the offenders were blackbirds; they’re a nuisance and easy to blame. One day, however, out my study window I saw the culprit: a beautiful red cardinal, furiously assaulting my rear view mirror.
He was possessed– he flew at the mirror, again and again, fussing at it, pecking it all over; he just wouldn’t stop. I called my fiend, a seasoned bird watcher, asking what she thought about his behavior: “Bonkers,” she said. But I wondered if perhaps he was fiercely combative, like a pit bull, and seeing enemies in the mirror, was fighting them to the death. Or that he was narcissistic, just another pretty face, and so enthralled with his own image, that he lavished his likeness with abundant pecks and kisses.
We couldn’t simply come home and just park anymore; every time we left the cars any length of time we had to cover their mirrors with plastic bags. If we didn’t, the mirrors would be attacked…or ravished, as the case may be. I resented that so tiny a creature could force me to change my life-style. I felt helpless, and outraged; I began having murderous thoughts. I wanted to stone the cardinal to death.
My homicidal ideation offended my moral sensibilities. I wondered whether the cardinal’s unnatural acts were a sign, in the way that a prophet’s erratic behavior was often considered divinely inspired. I recalled the biblical admonition, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone.” A hard saying for me in the heat of that moment: but I began doubting whether I was actually in the right. Was the cardinal intruding on my turf, or had my car invaded the cardinal’s space? Just which one of us could rightly claim that the turf I smugly called “my yard,” wasn’t actually his?
As I thought about it, I knew I hadn’t a leg to stand on. As sure as God made little cardinals, wherever we settle, we humans are the ones taking over everyone else’s turf and then making a mess of it. Cities are crowded, full of garbage and litter, hardly fit to live in. We abandon them, overbuild the suburbs, litter them and then flee, and again fell forests to build new malls with high density housing beside lovely streams and fields. Why, it’s a wonder anyone wants us around. And if that weren’t bad enough, I read recently that we are now regularly dumping tons of waste right in God’s front yard; yes, in heaven just as we do on earth.
Since Sputnik’s launch, according to Harpers, over 110,000 objects of less than half an inch are presently orbiting space. There are 8,870 objects larger than softballs, including 2000 defunct satellites, hundreds of discarded rockets (about 6 explode a year), thirty-four nuclear reactors, and two burial satellites, one containing the ashes of Timothy Leary. It’s become so littered that a concerned NASA is drafting “debris reduction” standards including the establishment of a 21,650 mile high “graveyard orbit” for those souls who may not trust God alone to get them to heaven. There’s no way that, if I were a cardinal, or an asteroid, for that matter, I would want my kind moving next door; one of us moves in, and the whole neighborhood goes.
About the cardinal? Whether his passions for mirrors are erotic or combative is anyone’s guess, but whichever they are, he’s still spending them regularly on my rear view mirrors. Is he ‛bonkers’ as my friend had suggested? I think so, but not half as bonkers as we who abandon ourselves to this insane consumerism that is now cluttering heaven with its garbage, as it has already done on earth. Do I still want to kill the cardinal?
I have no moral authority to cast the first stone. If God, in His mercy, hasn’t yet whacked all of us, first for our thoughtless trespassing, and then adding insult to injury, leaving all our trash in His front yard—military hardware at that– I can certainly learn to indulge the neurotic passions of one zany cardinal. The golden rule–do unto others– is a cardinal virtue; it’s also the cornerstone of justice, whether the justice is environmental or social. Acting unjustly is as bad for us as it is for the birds.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.