That Thing with Feathers

When the world starts to look dark, it can help to pay close attention to the beauty around us.

Sometimes when we’re conceiving an issue of Audubon we know early on which story and even which image we expect to feature on the cover; other times it doesn’t come together until it’s nearly time to ship it to the printer. That was the case this time around, with a bunch of us gathered around a wall of mockups, trying to decide whether, for instance, an ethereal shot of a Northern Gannet misrepresented our story about volunteers who make an annual pilgrimage to an island off Wales to rescue the birds from often brutal entanglements with the cast-off plastic rubbish they’ve used to fashion their nests. Or trying to figure out how we might visually convey the sudden and mysterious absence of bird life on Florida’s Seahorse Key. Or searching for a way to capture the urgency of the fight to save Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, the most biodiverse patch of land on the planet, from devastating oil development without just bumming everyone out before they even got past the cover. As is often the case with the articles we publish in Audubon, every one of these stories takes you to places that can be dark and distressing; and every one also, thankfully, carries elements of hope. How to deliver all of that in a single image?

An elegant solution emerged when someone suggested that we stop trying to be so literal. What if we were to publish, instead, a photograph that’s extraordinarily beautiful and calming and that, while it doesn’t relate directly to any of the features in this issue, somehow meaningfully evokes them all? What if the cover image could be something as simple and singular as a feather? So that’s what we did. And I honestly cannot imagine, at this moment, a more powerful image for the Audubon cover than Robert Clark’s stunningly detailed shot of a Superb Lyrebird’s tail feather.

In the famous poem whose first line I’ve pilfered for the headline to this column, what Emily Dickinson celebrates, what to her embodies “Hope,” is the constancy and tenacity, in the face of all manner of challenge and peril, that birds demonstrate to those who will notice and care. I’m writing this in a light-drenched apartment eight floors above west Harlem, and when I look out my windows toward the Hudson River I see gulls and flocks of sparrows soaring and scampering through the sky. They’re sublime, and they give me solace, and though they ask nothing in return they inspire me to keep working, to keep doing whatever I can do to help.