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    a silhouette of a hummingbird

    Hummingbirds Are Wondrous

    Everyone who has admired the hummingbird has one particular bird in mind. My hummingbird came to me in Los Angeles four years ago.

    By Zito Madu

    May 17, 2024

    A few years ago, a poet friend and I wrote a poem together through text. I was finishing my book, The Minotaur at Calle Lanza, and was up early in the morning with insomnia. I don’t remember how she knew that I was awake, but she sent a text that said, “why are you up Minotaur?” and from that conversation, and her teasing that I’m always inside my apartment – my lair, my labyrinth – we constructed a poem of what would be inside my labyrinth if there was one.

    Inside the labyrinth, which would have terrifyingly tall walls but would be open to the sky, we put lots of mirrors cut at startling angles. These mirrors would make it hard to see the turns, and seemed called for since you can make a labyrinth with just two facing mirrors. Also, one’s reflection can be its own kind of narcissistic labyrinth. Naturally there would be foxes. A raven. And a woman, a phantom, walking too quickly ahead to be perceived. I also said that in my labyrinth, this exterior and interior maze, there should be a hummingbird.

    Hummingbirds are wondrous creatures. As Katherine Rundell wrote in her 2022 essay “Consider the Hummingbird”:

    There is nothing I admire more than evolution. But it’s difficult, more than with any other living thing, to imagine hummingbirds beginning as archaebacteria among primordial murk, painstakingly working over millions of years to grow bright wings. They seem as if they were made in an instant, a spark of genius from an extravagant god.

    They are the smallest living birds in the world. There are 366 known species of hummingbirds, with the smallest being the bee hummingbird that measures at two inches, and the largest being the giant hummingbird, which is 9.1 inches long. Most live in the tropics, largely in Central and South America, but there are around seventeen species in the United States. They have long needle-like beaks, can fly forward, backward, up, down, and in zigzags. They flap their wings faster than any other bird, up to fifty times per second, they have the largest heart-to-body-size rate in an animal, and that heart has typically 500 to 1200 beats per minute, according to The Hummingbird Handbook (2021) by John Shewey. When in a state of deep rest, and to conserve energy, the hummingbird can slow down its heart rate to only fifty beats per minute, and drop its metabolism by 95 percent.

    a silhouette of a hummingbird

    Christian Spencer, Rainbow Ballet. Used by permission.

    In 2022, a study was published by Yale scientists on the range of colors in the plumage of hummingbirds, which “exceeds the known diversity of colors found in the plumages of all other bird species combined, increasing the total of known bird-visible plumage colors by 56 percent.”

    This range of color and radiance is especially mesmerizing when seen with the sun behind you, shining on the glittering feathers in all of their beauty. But the opposite can be true as well, with the sun behind the bird. There’s a project of photos I love by the photographer Christian Spencer, where he photographed the birds in front of the sun, like an eclipse. With the bodies and surrounding area being dark, their wings spread out like tiny prisms in which so many different colors come through in majestic fashion.

    According to an old tale told by the Maya, recounted in The Way of the Hummingbird (1986) by Virginia C. Holmgren, the bird was created when the Mayan great god realized that he had scraps of gray feather, a thin long beak, and some bones and muscle left over after creating every other kind of bird. He took all the material in his hands, made a bird shape, added the beak, and then gave the bird the gift of life. When the god released the bird, it hovered above his fingertips so fast that the air passing through its wings made a humming sound, and so the god named it Dzunuume, or “The Hummer.”

    Wanting “The Hummer” to have a mate, the god used his magical powers to gather similar material to make a second bird. Then he asked them to be married and to live happily. The other birds, hearing of a wedding, came with gifts to celebrate, and a house finch, happy about the occasion, exclaimed that everything would be so beautiful for the beautiful bride and handsome groom – but stopped itself short of calling it the most beautiful, since the hummingbirds were not beautiful at that time. They were only dull and gray.

    This range of color and radiance is especially mesmerizing when seen with the sun behind you, shining on the glittering feathers in all of their beauty.

    With all the birds concerned about the dullness of the hummingbirds’ colors, the long-tailed quetzal bird was the first to offer them its colors, asking them to take the feathers from its green tail plumes. The violet-green swallow offered its feathers next. Then the house finch gave its red feathers. The last addition wasn’t feathers; the sun itself came out from behind a cloud to pronounce the two hummingbirds married, and as a blessing, sent down its rays into the hummingbirds’ throats, “making the red scarf feathers flash red and gold like a leaping flame.”

    There are almost as many names for the hummingbird as there are tales, stories, and poems about it: Sky Spirit, Nectar Bird, Tobacco Bird, One Who Brings Life, Sun-God Bird, Little Rain Bringer, Little Life Giver, Medicine Bird, Sun-gilded, Bird with Face Painted by Sun, Bird of Gold with Throat of Fire, The Hoverer, Reborn One, Bee-like One, Firefly, Little Doctor Bird.

    H. Lawrence wrote, “In the world where humming-birds flashed ahead of creation / I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.” The sun and war god of the Aztec religion Huītzilōpōchtli is translated as either the left-handed hummingbird, or the left side of the hummingbird.

    Toward the end of Aimé Césaire’s 1963 play The Tragedy of King Christophe, the king says to a page:

    Congo, I’ve often watched
    the impetuous hummingbird in the datura blossom and wondered how so frail a body can hold that hammering heart without bursting.
    Africa, rouse my blood with your big horn
    Make it open like a giant bird.
    Ah, cage of my chest, don’t burst
    Beat, drums of my heart.

    In the editor’s introduction of The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent, a book of essays published between 1941 and 1945 by Suzanne Césaire (then Aimé’s wife), Daniel Maximin writes of how Aimé would compare his wife and her spirit to that of the hummingbird. And in the title essay, Suzanne would return to that hummingbird imagery to describe herself and the other women of the Antilles: “The hummingbird-women, tropical flower-women, the women of four races and dozens of bloodlines.”

    It’s no surprise that this bird – a bird at the birth of creation, a bird that brings life and the sun, a bird that represents the revolutionary heart of men and women in the West Indies – would end up in a poem, my poem. But to end up in a minotaur’s labyrinth is sure to seem odd.

    It always feels distant to talk about animals or people in general, rather than as individuals. And I believe that everyone who has written about and admired the hummingbird has one particular real bird in mind, from which the more general idea is derived. A hummingbird to think back on as “my hummingbird.”

    My hummingbird was a brilliant emerald bird that came to me in Los Angeles almost four years ago now. There had been other hummingbirds before that I had seen and been close to but this one, because of the circumstances of time and place, has become the one that always comes to mind.

    I was staying at a friend’s guest house across from the beach in Los Angeles. The pandemic was raging, a promising relationship had just ended, and I was alone. With the sudden sadness, I was unable to write or do much else but walk and try to read. I had planned to work on a book, but that became more difficult than I anticipated. I had no one to be with, no friends around for much of the time, and no chance of finding solace in literature – a sudden and strange loneliness that came as a shock.

    Still trying to work, I found an office in the guest house from which I could see the ocean. There was also a deck outside that was perfect for brooding late at night.

    The first morning, I arrived with my books and pen, ready to conquer the reading and writer’s block. When I looked out to get a glimpse of the water and the refreshing feeling that a sight like that can have, I saw a flash of green light that stood out against the wall of foliage. I opened the window and walked out to the balcony, and my eyes and mouth opened in excitement. Zipping around was the smallest bird I had ever seen, with a brilliant green body and a rose-pink throat and crown. I stood there watching this tiny creature, until it found whatever it was looking for and flew away.

    The next day, I went to the office earlier, hoping that it would come back. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the hummingbird was there again. Soon enough this became my routine, the main thing I looked forward to each morning. Sometimes the bird would be further away, exploring the many plants, trees, flowers, and hedges around, but I could always see it as soon as the light reflected off its feathers or just by looking for the thing that couldn’t seem to stand still.

    When I was with the green hummingbird, it became the company I didn’t know I needed.

    Often, when we encounter a presence in the world, it goes from a singular physical reality to a memory, and then eventually a meaning. An idea. When I was with the green hummingbird, it became the company I didn’t know I needed. We spent our mornings together, and after it went its way, I read and wrote.

    I started to give my hummingbird its own names and meanings. The Jade Bird. The Bird of Lost Love. The Bird of Rebirth. A Friend. The Sun-Bringer. The Life-Giver. The Bird of Mornings. The One Who Cures Loneliness. A tiny presence that changed the nature of the days for me back then. A sight to behold to remember the wonder of nature and the world, in the middle of a catastrophe.

    A year or so ago, I told the story to a friend of mine of Hispanic descent. I mentioned that I would love to have a hummingbird feeder outside my home someday. She agreed; a good home should be one that’s visited by hummingbirds or one that you can look out from and see those small examples of perfection. I didn’t know then that hummingbirds have also meant a lot to her in her culture. About a week later, I received a letter in the mail from her, with a lovely note about our friendship and the beauty of love and new beginnings, and attached to it was a singular hummingbird feather.

    So, even in a labyrinth with terrifying tall walls, where the ocean is no longer visible, a minotaur still needs a hummingbird, essential company in the endless journey through dead-ends, restarts, and new beginnings – as well as a reminder of the beauty of the world, the power of the sun, the rain, love, and life, all packed inside the body of a creature that weighs less than an ounce. A sign that within the smallest detail, the whole world is present, and just as the gravity and magnificence of life is present in the mountains, oceans, stars, and everything larger than life, it is also brilliantly present in its smallest bird.

    Contributed By ZitoMadu Zito Madu

    Zito Madu is a Nigerian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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