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Suszynski: How the hummingbird affects

I have developed a habit of opening the kitchen door and writing at the table there. The sounds from outside tiptoe in: the shifting wind, stray laughter. I have spent so much time here in the past weeks that I have tricked myself into believing I can hear the sun filter through the aspen leaves.

One sound is louder this year than in others: the purr of the hummingbird. On Monday morning, I felt the vibration of displaced air very close to me. Above the stove, a hummingbird, a broad-tailed male, was hovering as if waiting for the flame. It bounced around in its agitated pattern for about a minute and then left.

We stared at each other and both laughed at the absurdity of each other’s joy.

Wednesday afternoon, I was taking a break from the computer, when I felt the displacement again: like a soft-spoken electricity playing at puffing plumes of air on the back of my neck. This time, he floated above the kitchen table, atop the pile of books I am consulting to write this column. I want to believe it was the same one. He wound his little spring, wings churning. I hummed back.

As I write this, I realize my ears have adjusted to listen for him. I am waiting. I feel his loss when he is not here.

In a very dense but fascinating essay by Guy Davenport titled “The Concord Sonata,” Davenport dives deep into one of Henry David Thoreau’s most famously cryptic paragraphs.

The first sentence of Thoreau’s paragraph reads: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail.”

When I first read Thoreau’s words I thought, this sounds like a children’s fable: Clearly, we are operating in a set of symbols. And Davenport must have had a similar thought for he nods to this assumption with: “But symbols are not sense but signs.”

My hummingbird, what sign are you? What of the hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove? Later Davenport divines that these three animals are “a pet, one is a friend, one is a fellow worker.”

More importantly though, Thoreau is ruminating on loss. Is the hummingbird something lost and come to find me? Or is he a new idea humming his happy way in? A friend come to displace the stale air.

In Davenport’s section “6,” it only reads: “Solitude, reform, and silence.” This section, although small, tells me something new every time I read it.

In my own solitude as I write, parsing out the meaning in Davenport’s work, I find the hummingbird to be a very apt partner. Here is a bird that has been directly “reformed” by the flower.

Steven Johnson, a popular science writer and author, states “The symbiosis between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar ultimately created an opportunity for much larger organisms — the hummingbirds — to extract nectar from plants, though to do that they evolved a extremely unusual form of flight mechanics that enable them to hover alongside the flower in a way that few birds can even come close to doing. In other words, they had to learn an entirely new way to fly.”

This is the hummingbird effect (related to but not to be confused with the butterfly effect).

The flower changed the design of the hummingbird’s wing.

In section “15,” Davenport muses, “If we act by design, by principle, we need designers. Designers need to search.”

Thoreau was a designer. He invented the lead pencil and “a way of sounding ponds, a philosophy for being oneself, and raisin bread” according to Davenport. You can decide for yourself which is most important.

In one of Johnson’s books, “How We Got to Now,” he elaborates on the hummingbird effect: “History happens on the level of atoms, the level of planetary climate change, and all the levels in between. If we are trying to get the story right, we need an interpretative approach that can do justice to all those different levels.”

As I write, I am begging the air to deliver me that compact mechanized body of energy. I look for those playfully expressive eyes, the incandescent green. I look for my friend, my horse, my dove. Searching, if not for the design, for my own nature.

In section “8,” Davenport points us to a key Thoreau passage: “Mencius says: If one loses a fowl or a dog, he knows well how to seek them again; if one loses the sentiments of the heart, he does not know how to seek them again. The duties of all practical philosophy consist only in seeking after the sentiments of the heart which we have lost; that is all.”

I find that last sentence a little trite. We have not lost the sentiments of the heart, perhaps displaced them erroneously. If Thoreau was still “on their trail,” then deep down, he knew the sentiments of the heart were not lost. The hummingbird circulated its beautifully designed wings into my kitchen twice this week to say hello. He wasn’t lost. He knew exactly where he was. And we hummed in synchronous sentiment of heart at the sight of each other.


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