Oh no! It’s one of Patricia’s Nature posts! What, is William asleep at the keyboard? What about those other guys over there — how can they just let this happen month after month? Somebody call her to repentance and make her write something Mormon, woncha?
Heh, sorry! (But not really.) I just don’t see the diff. All those who believe love of nature to be a form of idolatry, proceed at your own risk!
Somewhere between the full ear and the red leaf, summer’s song flies south.
Several days ago I sat on the back porch talking on the phone with a friend. A young black-chinned hummingbird whirred around me, looking for the nectar my presence on the porch had often signaled during the summer. Alas, I had taken the feeders down to encourage our birds to migrate, the black-chins to wintering grounds in Mexico in the general area of Mazatlan and Manzanillo and the rufous hummingbirds to points farther south.
I have since discovered that this belief that hummingbirds won’t migrate if there’s food around is utterly false. I should have figured that out when most of our birds left before I took down the feeders. One of the pitfalls of stewardship is that sometimes we act in good faith without knowing what is actually necessary or true.
Still the — don’t laugh — pain of imminent separation needled me. Hummingbirds are found everywhere in Utah, but this was my first year playing hummingbird hostess, and I had fallen completely and irretrievably in love with my flamboyant, high-speed guests.
When we noticed the birds’ arrival in spring, my daughter designed and manufactured homemade feeders and put them up, filling them with the recommended 1-to-4 nectar mix. Our second-story porch acquired the ambiance of a rowdy bar as gangs of tiny, feathered brawlers swarmed to feed, joust with and body slam each other. Since we left the doors to our porch open all summer, our entire upstairs rang with the birds’ trilled war cries. My son remarked the racket sounded like speeded up starship battle scenes from Star Wars.
Taking an exact census proved impossible, but at times we counted fourteen hummers zipping like iridescent meteors around the feeders, their sheeny throat patches flashing colors I don’t think we have names for. Coppery-orangy-red? Ruby-glitter-red? Opalescent deep violet? Sometimes I averted my eyes to control the effects such colors had upon me.
The kids discovered that if they sat very still and laid their fingers along the feeders’ rims the birds would perch on their fingers to dip into the nectar. I asked my daughter if she had seen the hummingbirds’ tongues. She had, of course. “They look like transparent threads,” she said.
This is why I moved to rural Utah — so my children would mix with other species. And mix we all did. Early on, I removed three hummingbirds from the house: Two became trapped in the kitchen skylight and another caught its beak in the weave of a window screen. A few others flew in then found their own way back out. Eventually we learned not to place the feeders so close to the back doors and the birds learned they didn’t want to come inside after all.
In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv says, “… a room with a view of nature can help protect children against stress, and … nature in or around the home appears to be a significant factor in protecting the psychological well-being of children in rural areas.” I suspect my own no-holds-barred involvement with wildlife where I grew up may well have charged my sanity batteries to where I was able to make it through long stretches of trouble. So it is perhaps out of a very old instinct that I have led my kids back to another nature-rich environment that has had great meaning in my life, not just to replenish myself, but also to dip their lives in what remains of the fullness of this Earth just as Achilles’s mother Thetis dipped him in the river Styx.
By summer’s end, I often felt hummers’ wings graze my hair as birds chased past. I watched them fly beneath my arms as I leaned on the porch railing. Bright summer day after bright summer day, our family enjoyed their antics and elan. One adult black-chinned male caught on quickly to my role as nectar-bearer, drinking from the feeder while I filled it. One morning I was late replenishing the empty feeders. As I stepped out the door, this bird zipped up to my face then back to the feeder, urgency flying off his tiny person in sparks. He drank straight from the container as I poured from it.
As summer thinned out, our hummingbirds grew fat and sassy. They seemed to be in great shape for migration and well-satisfied with their seasonal visit. Most of them left over a week ago, but a few stragglers, like this little one, hung back. I broke off my phone conversation and gestured south toward the Carrizo Mountains in Arizona. “Go! Fly south! That way!” I said.
I had allowed my children to touch the birds — or rather, I had allowed the birds to touch my children. That’s how children learn — using all their senses. That’s how they learn to love. Birds, too, in the ways birds learn and love.
But except for incidents of necessity where I rescued birds in the house, hand-carried them outside, and felt their hearts beat fiercely against my closed palm, I’d had no direct contact. It was enough for me to share their space, to trust their competency in high-speed flight, and to feel the touch of their eyes as they appraised my intentions.
But at last the urge to say thank you and goodbye and Godspeed got to me. I stretched my hand toward the bird perched above me on the wire. “Ohh,” I groaned. It was a poor sound for expressing my full range of feeling, but there it was. To my surprise, the bird flew down, halting, hovering, to my fingertips and probed between my fingers with its beak. Just a twinkle of contact, but the sudden force the surprise and delight provoked in me shifted the meaning of my whole day.
Today the porch is quiet. We’ve seen no hummingbirds at all. As if to take the edge off my sweet sorrow, cliff swallows have moved onto the power lines around our house as they prepare to migrate, bringing this year’s brood of fledging aerial acrobats with them. The swallows fill our yard with their sparkling flight and twittering conversation. Yesterday, as my daughter and I hung over the porch rail wondering at the whirlwind of swallows streaking around the yard, one bird banked and dove through the six-foot-wide space between us and the back of the house, traversing the entire 20-foot-length of the porch, flying equidistant between roof and floor. Following its flight, we reeled 270 degrees on our heels and became part of the birds’ dance past us. “Wow!” my daughter said, breathless. I felt the tweaking of her attention span on several levels.
Involvement in Nature trains the eye and deepens language. In fact, language, as it has developed in humans, can be seen as one of Nature’s creative strivings and thus as a flourishing wilderness in its own right. Can it be doubted that any failure of involvement in Nature affects how we form our human bonds and how we worship the Creator of this place of burgeoning relations? Also, our art manifests the quality of those bonds and relations. I’ve listened to my chidren tune their own words to describe their experience with the natural world that now surrounds us, often relying reflexively upon metaphor. From my own childhood I brought to the human landscape all the depths of wonder and feeling Nature inspired in me. Translating such emotional involvement into human interaction didn’t always go smoothly. A mentor perceived my frustration at not knowing whether to hold back in feeling or in expressing depths of feeling. He spoke gently, as if pitying my condition: “My dear, it’s all right to love, and to love deeply.” These words provoked a rush of pent up belief and emotion, releasing me from a terrible spell that had deprived me of full human form.
Now that I understand that hummingbirds know their own business very well and don’t require my assuming responsibility that isn’t mine to assume in the first place, I’ll put the feeders back up and see what happens. In the meantime, we’re looking forward to the return of the birds of summer whose colorings and manners of flight appear to have evolved to carry summer’s spark from hemisphere to hemisphere and to fan fires of wonder in humans who bother to look up and pay them even the slightest attention.