Birdsacre:

Who is Cordelia?

Cordelia the year she went to live in Rhode Island, age 14

Cordelia the year she went to live in Rhode Island, age 14

Born August 1, 1865 – the year Lincoln was assassinated – so close to midnight that her parents were unsure whether she as a July or August baby. She was raised a Victorian lady with a prestigious family heritage sailing back nine centuries, and the daughter of a daring, young Sea-Captain and a prosperous merchant’s daughter from Cape Breton, Cordie defined life’s role escaping matrimony and dedicating the last fifty years of a long life to the woodlands of her childhood. In the process, establishing herself as a highly respected Ornithologist and Wildlife Photographer.

At the relatively young age of 39, Cordelia suffered a nervous breakdown, precipitated by the economic and physical strains an unmarried woman faced teaching in the late 19th century. Her early retirement from a distinguished and varied teaching career spanning 14 years, and ranging from grammar school to principal, to Art Supervisor, must have been difficult. Returning for the first time since she was 14 to recuperate in her parents’ home could have been no easier, but it was here at Birdsacre that she would find true self-fulfillment and professional recognition as a pioneer, and quiet possibly, the first female, Ornithologist Photographer.

Cordelia at age 17

Cordelia at age 17

In the spring of 1905, Cordie emerged from a long, bleak winter of vice-like migraines and deep depressions rejuvenated. The initial observations she penned on the chickadees and bluebirds around her house launched the staggering accumulation of field research notebooks that would stretch nearly half a century. The illuminating and definitive knowledge reflected from these field-notes caused leading ornithologists to encourage Cordie when few women succeeded in the world of literature or science. John Burroughs and Frank Chapman, in particular, often accepted her word above others; the highly critical John Burroughs even substituted Cordelia’s word where his experience lacked.

A dedicated observer, Cordelia’s extensive time in the woods helped her unravel many of the early 20th century feathered mysteries concerning bird behavior, egg and bird weight, nest construction, and more. Her most intensive years were relatively short, but above average. When most birders typically focused on a specific species, Cordelia followed the whole forest. Between 1905 and 1908 she visited over a hundred different nests detailing the many stages of life for each species. One day alone in 1910, she identified over 30 species before lunch. The endless hours of vigilance braving mosquitoes, sunburns, and wet feet were no picnic. However, the knowledge Cordie gleaned made her a unique resource worthy of publication.

Cordie marketed her bird life histories in highly scientific and popularized magazines from the Audubon Society’s Bird Lore, to Blue Bird, Nature and Culture, and House Beautiful, among others. In addition to focusing her literary and photojournalistic skills on birds and nature, Cordie also produced stories on antiques and architecture capturing an elegant, but fading piece of Maine’s old homes in the Ellsworth, Blue Hill, and the Castine area. In 1916, Cordie taught herself photography, and with a boxy, Eastman Kodak No.5 glass-plate camera dramatically documented her research. When lugging her camera equipment into the woods became too difficult, she enlisted the help of curious, neighborhood children.

Cordelia, age 39, the year before she came home to Birdsacre.

Cordelia, age 39, the year before she came home to Birdsacre.

To supplement a meager, free-lance income, Cordie tirelessly braided and hooked rugs, wove baskets, and wood burned designs for sale. After interning with the Old Town Penobscot Native Americans, and briefly studying under the renowned basket maker, Mrs. Cushman Sawyer, Cordie began fashioning her own original designs. However, by the 1950’s and entering her nineties, making ends meet became increasingly difficult. In her last years she received minor assistance through Senator Eugene Hale and Governor Brann who, hearing of Cordie’s disapproval of charity, cleverly purchased her bird photography for the State library as a means to preserve her scientific contributions while fiscally buoying her in her remaining years. Although Cordelia’s research would not add any revolutionary discovery to ornithology, her detailed and exhaustive studies did provide illuminating knowledge that refined the study of birds for future generations. In 1934, her portrait was presented to the Library of Congress by the American Ornithologist’s Union, but her active involvement in ornithology was quietly becoming history as a new core of academically trained scientists emerged with new research methods. By mid-century her chance to publish her life’s tome Fir and Feathers had long passed. Cordelia’s contributions to major projects like Arthur Bent’s North American Birds for the Smithsonian, and Edward Forbush’s massive three volume Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, secured her name and research alongside the best definitive bird studies. The compliments she received were a source of indelible pride. Dr. Alfred Gross of Bowdoin paid her the ultimate compliment when he said: “Your life histories of birds such as the Hermit Thrush and many others are the best any Maine person has written.”

Committed to the education of nature, Cordelia donated, toward the end of her life, her vast, photographic collection to the Acadia National Park. The 600 negative glass plates, which luckily escaped Acadia’s “Fire of ’47,” are believed to be one of the few complete collections of its kind. However, Cordie guarded, perhaps her greatest gem, the field-notes spanning half her life, up until her last years; finally presenting the Ellsworth Bird Club with these remarkable field-notes. Cordelia Stanwood had that “touch of genius” which sets her apart from the normal. Carved of contradictions, Cordelia was a brilliant woman who could charm her guests at afternoon tea parties, and shock others with her temper and strange outbursts – difficult to understand. She could be aggressively bold, but painfully shy. A sensitive interpreter of the varied colors and tones of nature, she was coolly indifferent to the social conduct that motivates must of us. Proud and independent, she scorned charity and defied pity from family and friends.

As the decades passed Cordelia withdrew from the rapidly changing world beyond Birdsacre’s door. With her achievements near forgotten by the 1950’s her solitary manner and Victorian style wove a mysterious eccentricity around a woman who never felt lonely within the realm of nature. From this strange background rose the indomitable spirit that created a remarkable student, teacher, artist, ornithologist, author, photographer, basket weaver, rug maker, and symbol of family tradition. Her star faded with a keen mind on November 20, 1958, at the age of 93.