Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Flashing ahead of creation

When the sugar water in the feeder goes sour, the hummingbirds let us know. They dip their long beaks into the tiny holes, ever so briefly, then -- am I imagining it? -- cast us a disapproving glance.

So we mix more sugar water, refill the feeder, and as soon as we retreat inside the screened porch they are back, jealously one at a time, to gleefully dip and suck.
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Lines from a poem by D. H. Lawrence, called Humming-bird.

They have the highest metabolic rates of any animals, a dozen times higher than a pigeon and a hundred times higher than an elephant. In hovering flight a Bahamian woodstar's wings beat at an incredible -- and invisible -- 80 times per second. Its heart beats 10 times faster than a human's. To maintain these rates, a hummingbird must consume nearly its weight in nectar daily, which requires visits to hundreds or even thousands of flowers. That's roughly equivalent to a human chug-a-lugging a bottle of Gatorade every five minutes of his waking hours.
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
As small as my pinkie finger, held aloft on a blur of motion, shimmering like jewelry, its powerful flight muscles jam-packed with mitochondria, the minute compartments in every cell that squeeze energy from sugar. Solar powered. An active hummingbird is never more than a few hours from starving to death.
I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.
How is it possible? Eighty beats per second! In the time it takes me to say "eighty," their wing muscles have expanded and contracted eighty times, too fast for the eye to follow. Those shivering airfoils, those racing hearts. Dipping their beaks into the fresh liquid. Backing off. Winking -- do I imagine it? -- hanging there, animated ornaments. Then darting, bullet-like, into the hedge.
Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbering, terrifying monster.
We look at him through he wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.