Saturday, February 23, 2013

`Filled with Astonishment and Wonder'

Helen Pinkerton writes from Northern California: “Our recent snowstorm has gilded every pine needle with white beauty. Even the hummingbirds perch on my deck railing and are enjoying it.” 

A few days earlier I had seen a dragonfly outside the front window, dipping among the lantana. A dragonfly in mid-February? Texas is wondrous. I stared, and the dragonfly turned into a hummingbird. Even more wondrous. Texas is home to eighteen species, and this fellow was an unidentifiable blur. I felt like the early European visitors to the New World who mistook hummingbirds for insects, though they should never be confused with the hummingbird hawk-moth. All of which reminds me of a sad story told by Walter Scheithauer in Hummingbirds (translated from the German by Gwynne Vevers, 1967): 

“The first live hummingbird to arrive in Europe was a Sparkling Violet-ear (Colibri coruscans) which was exhibited in 1905 at the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park, London. For fourteen days it created a sensation and the many visitors who saw it were filled with astonishment and wonder. Then it died.” 

For the sake of dramatic economy the story ought to have ended there, but Scheithauer continues and the story only gets sadder: 

“It had presented more problems to science than any other known bird. Practically nothing was understood about its care and management; the correct food was certainly not known. Under these circumstances it was not possible to keep this exceptionally beautiful bird alive.”

Helen's friend Janet Lewis published "Hummingbird, Los Altos" in The New Republic in 1979 when she was eighty years old. It's collected in Poems Old and New 1918-1978 (1981):

"I hear you in there, hummingbird,
In the thicket of the orange tree,
Whirring of wings, click of beak,
Furious intent assault
Upon the honeyed blossom.

"You come from foxglove bells
In a garden overlooking a great river,
In a summer long gone.

"But I deceive myself. The ruby-throat
Does not cross the Rockies.
You are perhaps an Anna. Suddenly
You leave the tree, spiral
Into grey sky, turn
In horizontal flight,
And are gone."

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