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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The brutality of the hummingbird

There's a small, half-dead spruce on the bank by the ocean. It's silly looking, bruised by storms, with just a few scraggly branches left, one of which is bare and springs out of the top like a cowlick. Among many other reasons never to remove the tree I've just discovered another. The sprong-y thing at the top serves as a perch for a hummingbird.

Even a hummingbird must rest. I'm always amazed at the ceaseless energy of birds, constantly flying in and out of the frames we construct of the world. Speeding, darting, gliding, swooping - the words to describe their flights are endless. A bird's activities seem random and purposeful at the same time, especially the hummingbird who can fly at right angles, or backwards, or forever, or so it seems. The hummingbird, being a bit wild, doesn't sit on the Adirondack chairs like the robin does, a more domesticated bird who feel so comfortable there that he not only perches on, but poops down, the slats of the chairs. (Robins have also built a nest in the shrub right next to the back door, subject to constant alarms from openings and closings and shadows in the windows, but that's a story for another day.) The hummingbird rests on high, unconcerned with the planes flying into Knox County Regional.

What a contrast birds are with the brute force of the airplane! No song, just noise; no brain, just a computer; a hard metal skin replacing bright soft feathers; petroleum, not seeds, for food; engines, not wings, for power. A plane just drives stupidly straight ahead.

But when it comes right down to it, is the hummingbird any less brutal? Is his glorious flight anything more than the drive for food? A person of a reductionist or materialist persuasion would say yes, birds are little more than more-exquisite machines, following instinct, stimulated by chemicals.

This is something to fight against every day. Lest I forget, a bird in flight or at rest startles me into beauty, and beauty can't be explained or reduced, even the beauty to someone (else) of a Gulfstream in full throat.

1 comment:

Jeff Boatright said...

I agree that a Gulfstream cannot compare to the beauty of a hummingbird (though might a Gulfstream in full throat compare well to a buzzard with throat full?).

There are some good aviation writers who are also for the birds. Might I suggest the following?

"A Sky of My Own" by Molly Bernheim
"Airymouse" by Harald Penrose

I just picked up "Airymouse" at Wonderbooks via Amazon, new, hardback, for $2.99 (yep, less than three dollars), free shipping. Bernheim's book can be had for similarly few dollars, though not new, via Amazon resellers. Berheim's prose reminds me of White's "On Man's Meat," but then, I'm not that well-read, so take that with a grain of salt.