An Oval Canvas

In common things considered we often can find some inspiration. Recently I was reciting the first line of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” to a 2nd grade class as an example of simple poetry. While they were thinking on the level of “Roses are red, violets are blue, rotten meat stinks and so do you” I sought to inspire them with “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” The immediate response bursting from the kid in the front row was an incredulous, and rather loud, “what the heck does that mean!”

Second graders do not varnish their thoughts – they allow them to erupt like fountains from their boiling kettle of brains. I was forced to explain how each tree has a story to tell in its twisting branches, gnarly bark and patterned leaves and that story is like a poem. They grunted some form of understanding and proceeded to write their “roses are red” poems anyway. This experience forced me, however, into thinking about other simple things and how they are complicated in their simplicity. Take eggs for example.

I will use the example offered by two random eggs offered up to me this Spring. The first was laid upon a bed of green moss at the base of one of my Maple trees. I noticed a robin sitting at an odd angle with her tail up against the trunk. She flushed at my approach and left a fresh, still very warm, egg sitting on the ground. I’m thinking that perhaps she meant to pass gas and accidently pushed out an egg instead. This happens, you know. The second example was a Red-winged Blackbird egg found floating in the water at the edge of a marsh. It could have been knocked out of the nest or plunked into the drink as the result of another avian gas attack. I thought “what the heck?” as I picked them up. Both are sublimely common and ordinary things yet poetic in their simplicity.

The intensity of color in my robin egg caught my eye anew. Everyone knows that robin’s eggs are blue, but it needs describing. For Tiffany & Co., their robin egg blue is officially described as Color 1837 and on the universal Pantone Color system it is close to shade No. 319. It is greenish blue as opposed to bluish green – neither royal, cerulean, nor sky. It is a perfect shade laid upon a perfect shape.

Although the background of the Red-winged Blackbird is also blue, the shade is much lighter and closer to Pantone No. 317 (Cornflower?). While the robin makes its impression by pure strength of shade, the Red-wing blows the mind with pattern. Thoroughly emblazoned with bold dark brown calligraphic squiggles on the surface, the shell exhibits several layers of décor like mysterious ancient cyphers over-written by newer scribes. While all robin eggs are virtually identical, no two Red-wing eggs are alike. Each is an original work of art.

Consider that all bird eggs are un-colored before they are laid. The pigment is applied to the outer part of the shell as the egg journeys down the oviduct and presses against glands located in the wall. Dark pigments are applied in a pattern determined by the twists and turns of the egg – like a mobile canvas being passed back and forth over a stationary Sharpie marker.  Spots are created where the egg’s journey is paused and squiggles result when it moves.  In other words, the journey of an egg from inner bird to outer nest is not a simple process. It is factory line of brushes, sprays, conveyor belts and tiny manipulating robots.

The squiggles on the Red-winged Blackbird egg are especially fascinating. With a little imagination one can discern a rabbit-headed snake, a long-tailed forest bird, a colonial style letter “G”, a perfect comma, and a crossed out line from a long lost hand-written Mark Twain manuscript.

There are some practical reasons for these shell designs – mostly based on camouflage and identity – but scientists have yet to fully explain the complexities of this simplicity.

It’s a shame that hatching baby birds have to enter the world as vandals by destroying all this shell poetry.

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