Monday, March 14, 2005

Free as a bird

My first hummingbird nest. And, yes, that's my thumb next to the nest to give a sense of scale.

If you want a symbol of freedom, the hummingbird is it. Exuberant. Unpredictable. A streak of pure fun. It is the speed, of course, that gives the impression of spontaneity. The bird can perform a dozen intricate maneuvers more quickly than I can turn my head.

Is the hummingbird's apparent freedom illusory, a biochemically determined response to stimuli from the environment? Or is the hummingbird's flight what it seems to be, willful and unpredictable? I watch the birds at the feeder. Their hearts beat ten times faster than a human's. They have the highest metabolic rate of any animal, a dozen times higher than a pigeon, a hundred times higher than an elephant. Hummingbirds live at the edge of what is biologically possible, and it's that, the fierce intenseness of their aliveness, that makes them appear so exuberantly free.

But there are no metaphysical pilots in these little flying machines. The machines are the pilots. You give me carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and a few billion years of evolution, and I'll give you a bird that burns like a luminous flame. The miracle of the hummingbird's freedom was built into the universe from the first moment of creation.