Feathers: A Stunning Photographic Love Letter to Evolution’s Masterpiece and Its Astonishing Array of Beauty
Art meets science in a poetic celebration of Earth’s astonishing diversity.
By Maria Popova
“Hope is a thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote, unwitting of how wonderfully this artistic truth conveys a fact of science. More than material for metaphor, feathers are one of evolution’s most hopeful creations — a remarkable multipurpose design, which powers everything from warmth to mating to flight and endures as one of very few tangible links our everyday world has to the dinosaurs that walked it millions of years ago.
While working on a National Geographic story about Darwin, award-winning photographer Robert Clark became enchanted with the role of birds and their feathers in the pioneering scientist’s theory of evolution — from the diversity of finch beaks in the Galapagos, which first gave Darwin the idea that spatial isolation and adaptive change over time could give rise to a new species, to the pigeons he began breeding upon returning to Britain in an experiment to accelerate the process of evolution.
Clark, whose childhood love of birds never left him, grew newly bewitched by a scientific curiosity about the feather, that exquisite masterpiece of nature, and its 200-million-year evolutionary history. To exorcise this obsession, he set out to photograph an astonishing array of feathers, from a 125-year-old Chinese fossil predating the death of the dinosaurs to the understated feathery ferocity of the owl to the stunning plumage of the bird-of-paradise. The result is Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage (public library) — an intensely beautiful visual taxonomy and a photographic love letter to this poetic feat of evolution. Each of Clark’s striking photographs, an intersection of art and science, is accompanied by short text illuminating the role of feathers in the life of that bird species, from hunting and camouflage to flight to mating.
What emerges is a glorious celebration of the diversity of this planet we call home and a gentle, poetic antidote to our arrogant sense of specialness and supremacy — there are, after all, creatures whose beauty stuns us into humility, into realizing that entire dimensions of wondrousness and whimsy exist on which we can’t even begin to compete. Even the way we name these creatures — lest we forget, naming can confer dignity or take it away — says more about our human hubris than about nature’s humbling magnificence: the species we’ve named with words like common are no less beguiling than those whose names contain words like superb.
A bird can use some of its feathers to fly, others to stay warm, and still others to attract a mate. And among the ten thousand species of living birds, evolution has produced a staggering variety of feathers for each of those functions. Penguins, for example, produce tiny, nub-like feathers on their wings that keep them warm in the Antarctic Ocean while also allowing them to, in effect, fly through water. Owls, on the other hand, grow feathers on their wings that muffle the sound of their flight as they swoop in on their victims. The tail feathers of a Lyrebird grow to elegant twisted heights to attract a mate. The Club-winged Manakin has feathers that produce violin-like notes when flapped. The female Club-winged Manakin doesn’t choose a mate based on how his feathers look so much as how they sound.