Wed | Dec 1, 2021

Tony Deyal | A bird in demand

Published:Saturday | October 23, 2021 | 12:08 AM

Listen to the hummingbird Whose wings you cannot see… Listen to the mind of God Don’t listen to me Leonard Cohen (2019) “What’s purple and hums?” asked Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium is the Message. This was his way of forcing...

Listen to the hummingbird

Whose wings you cannot see…

Listen to the mind of God

Don’t listen to me

Leonard Cohen (2019)

“What’s purple and hums?” asked Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium is the Message. This was his way of forcing us to understand the extent to which television had changed everything in our lives, even the nature of jokes. It was all ‘stand-up’ comedy now and none of the long ‘shaggy dog’ style of joke which requires a long ‘set-up’. When nobody got it, he replied, “An electric grape.” He continued, “Why does it hum?” and when we remained silent, said, “Because it doesn’t know the words.”

That is true but I tend to take it further. A rolling stone plays the guitar. Early to bed and early to rise is first in the bathroom. Where there’s a will there’s a lawsuit. There is no such thing as a free lunch, but there’s always free cheese in a mousetrap. A bird in the hand is a real mess and makes it impossible to touch-type or blow your nose, but it is nowhere as bad as two birds in the bush. At my age and in such circumstances the only bird that will not get out of hand and become both a thorn in the side and a pain in the grass but will deal with McLuhan’s question is the hummingbird. It hums because it doesn’t know the words. It might create a flap or a buzz. It might even take flight because it is not into stand-up, but in the bird kingdom it is nectar and ambrosia. The hummingbird competes with the stillness of the air or, as one writer said, “darts lightly through the world, spreading its message of joy and beauty, and teaching us to appreciate the wonder and magic of everyday existence.”

I spent all my early life in ‘The Land of the Hummingbird’, the name which was given to Trinidad by the Amerindians. Yet, while I saw the hummingbirds everywhere, especially on the flowers of the ubiquitous hibiscus plant, I never paid them much attention. I was really not interested in what we called the ‘Quillie Bee’. Our culture, very much in the country areas but even in the cities, was deeply into ‘mining bud’ (minding birds). These were ‘songbirds’ and, even now in some parts of the Caribbean, especially Guyana, they are much sought after, caught, caged and put to compete with others. While in some countries it has been nipped in the ‘bud’, so to speak, there is still trafficking in those considered the best and most musical.

STOPPED ‘MINING’

Over the years, I stopped ‘mining’ anything but children and my own business, and stopped shooting anything but the breeze. I liked the haste and speed of the hummingbirds but never paid any special attention to them until we moved to Belize. Hugh Walpole would have called it ‘serendipity’, other people know it as ‘coincidence’, but I use the term that psychologist Carl Jung applied to “meaningful coincidences” - “synchronicity”. Belize made me forever Jung.

Our first home in Belmopan, the inland capital of Belize, was on the aptly named Hummingbird Highway. Early in the morning, the mists swirled around and covered the view in all directions, from the distant hills to a worn wooden storage shed or bodega only 20 yards away from the little house on the old citrus farm. It was a benign isolation, a feeling that the world was mine and that time was indeed a foreign magazine with no place for, or relevance to, us.

It was there, in Belize, I was able to see for myself and learn that hummingbirds are the only species that, even though unable to walk, hop or shuffle on their extremely short and weak legs, can hover, dart, dive, fly backwards and even upside down. We had moved from Barbados to Trinidad, then to Belize and, from there, went to Antigua and back to Trinidad. Wherever we have lived, we always have a full bird bath and feeders outside. When we lacked proper nectar feeders, my wife Indranie improvised and hung small bowls full of fresh sugar water for the hummingbirds and those others who live on nectar, including the tiny bananaquit also known as a ‘sugar bird’ or ‘sucrier’. Indranie is a bird and animal magnet. She claims this is why she married me and is not upset when I have an occasional bird in the hand.

These days, I sit in the veranda watching the hummingbirds shuttling in, jockeying for position and attempting to land as if they were in the Kennedy or Dallas/Fort Worth airports. Our mango tree, right in front of me, is the control tower where lives the ‘Copper-Rumped’, the smallest but most aggressive species in Trinidad. It has little white feathers like soccer socks on its legs and is hell-bent on kicking out those it doesn’t want in its domain.

DEPENDENCY SYNDROME

From the outside looking in, it might seem like we are aping all Caribbean governments and creating a dependency syndrome while, at the same time, given the way the multitude sits waiting or knocks on the windows demanding food, an entitlement syndrome. If we sin, we at least don’t want anything from the birds like votes or allowing us to rob them blind. We don’t create make-work, free money projects and siphon the spoils to our own pockets or those of our friends. None of our birds get preferential treatment unless they are injured or have been wounded – physically or emotionally. Yesterday, several brave hummingbirds came right up to Indranie’s face as she sat in the verandah to clearly point out to her that because it was a very hot day their feeders were already empty. Even the bananaquits loudly let her know, like Oliver Twist or Sparrow’s ‘Congo Man’, they wanted more. After many years of watching birds and politicians, I realise that the only thing they have in common is that very early in the game they feather their own nests.

This is why I end with Wangari Muta Maathi, the Kenyan social, environmental and political activist who was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, “We should always feel like the hummingbird. I may feel insignificant, but I don’t want to be like the other animals watching the planet go down the drain. I’ll be a hummingbird; I’ll do the best I can.”

- Tony Deyal was last seen saying that, like many humans he knows, including a former US president and at least one Caribbean prime minister, they have no control of their tongues. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com