Silhouettes of the Season

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Photo by Joan Heffernan

Can you identify these birds from their silhouettes?

As we hit the trails this time of year, we may have to dig deeper to find the beauty around us. Heavy snow has yet to fly, the songbirds with their lovely plumage and melodic songs have headed south, the leaves have fallen, and the woods are mostly quiet and still. But we can’t just hide inside for the colder months, so we set off, our sights on a new vision: silhouettes. Early and late in the day we are treated to beautiful stands of trees backlit by the autumn sun making them appear dark against the sky. Sometimes it is so lovely that it stops us in our tracks and helps to guide the conversation to perspective and the simpler things in life.

Speaking of simple, when I was a kid my very first field guide was Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. Inside the front cover was a layout of roadside birds in silhouette. Growing up, my best friend and I spent hours studying this page, and we would quiz each other on the shape of these birds. We knew that bluebirds have slumped shoulders and barn swallows have forked tails. This information is still stored in our brains where there is no longer room for Pi and the date when the Magna Carta was signed.

Silhouettes were kind of a big thing back in the day. Every grandma’s kitchen was full of them, and we would see folks cutting portraits out of black paper at local fairs or in our travels. Once, my parents got the four of us to be still long enough for the silhouette artist to replicate us. But they looked more like somebody else’s kids so they were relegated to the junk drawer, rolled up scroll style next to the screwdrivers and hairbrushes. 

We did see silhouettes when we were out and about. My parents occasionally would drag us to some old fashioned restaurant with silhouettes of historical figures adorning the walls. We did not pay much attention, as we were angling for the relic of all appetizers, the relish tray while hoarding the crackers and hoping to pawn the cottage cheese off on our parents.

At home with my own children, we deprived them and thus never had the kids’ silhouettes done. It has probably marred their sense of self forever. As a concession, I did buy a book completely illustrated with silhouettes. It is called Sunday Morning, and it is a collaboration between Knight (of Eloise fame) and Viorst (of Alexander and the Horrible Day fame). Through silhouettes it covers two of my favorite topics: boys and shenanigans. Recently I shared it with my grandson, and he was pretty infatuated with those silhouettes of boys jumping on beds, mopping up spilled cereal with evening dresses and, not surprisingly, parents at wits’ end. I’d have to say we both know something about either end of that equation.

Somehow the illustrations done in silhouette form draw you in. And that is precisely what the trees are doing around town in the waning light. So, being on the trail or the road we feel pretty spellbound. I can’t help but recall how author Alexandra Fuller described such a sight. “Trees appeared like occasional calligraphy against the sky.” What a way of putting it, and I’ll be looking for nature’s calligraphy as the light fades each day. Perhaps you will join me in thinking about a greater power’s handwriting on the horizon. I think I have a pretty good guess about what it is saying.

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