BIRDS HAVE BEEN A PART OF MY LIFE for as long as I can remember, and hummingbirds have held a special place in my heart for the simple reason that they, early on, became personal to me. On some level, you could say I became a writer because of hummingbirds, and they have appeared in my fiction since I was very young.
How to make sense of life, especially during childhood? Sometimes, what moves you creatively early on has to do with mystery—some unanswered question or a moment when the world seems less mapped than we are told, less known, and we get a glimpse beyond what we think we understand.
For me, this feeling overwhelmed me for the first time high in the Andes, in the city of Cuzco, when I was eight, and it involved hummingbirds.
I am not going to complain about my childhood—it was worse than some and better than many. But it was a sickly time for me. Transplanted to the Fiji Islands from Pennsylvania when my parents joined the Peace Corps, I discovered I was allergic to many flowering trees and also developed acute asthma. The practical effect of this meant that some mornings I would wake to birdsong hardly able to breathe or open my eyes.
Yet we lived in the cliché of a tropical paradise, a nature-rich country in which nothing separated you from the outdoors. An island nation that knew the limits of its resources and thus, at that time, treasured them.
At recess at school, in our drab gray uniforms, we would run across the road to the black sand beach at low tide and look for mudskippers, or walk along the edge of the reef, searching for starfish. I would stare into the alien eye of a sea turtle as my mother captured the detail in her biological illustrations. We would pile into a boat so my father could go to an outer island and observe the damage to coconut trees from rhinoceros beetles, for his research. Along the way, I would keep a birding journal and identify what I saw using a black-and-white stapled booklet showing the local Fijian species.
There could be no greater contrast between the beauty of that place and the realities of my condition. This is not to say that I didn’t have many good days as well, but along with the flare-ups a consistent undercurrent crept in, pulling us down: my parents were going through what my sister and I would later call “the ten-year divorce.” The mood in our house could be intense and disturbing—and confusing to a child. Whether or not I could breathe easily, my breath caught on this incurable condition of parents who did not get along.
When we returned home to the United States, we did so via extended world travel. What a gift to a child, these unexpected adventures in a remarkable journey experienced in part through hostels and YMCAs, only intermittently interrupted by my illness and parental strife. To experience at ground level, often in a way that wasn’t part of the usual tourist experience, was a richness for my senses and a lesson in the beauty of difference.
By the time we arrived in Peru on one trip, however, I was really sick, the asthma bad. I had a premonition of this on the flight in, wheezing like an old man as we gained altitude. But the silver bullet of a prop plane to get to Cuzco served as wondrous distraction as the pilot, banking and wheeling, miraculously avoided jagged, snowcapped mountains that seemed too close.
This flight, which I remember today more vividly than some things that happened this year, felt like the entry into some other world. The landscape and buffeting winds would not allow me to forget I was flying in a fragile vessel, no matter how it resembled a sturdy metal aircraft.
The way my stomach lurched and ears closed as the plane plunged and then the sheer exhausted, delighted relief at the perfect landing, as the pilot eased up on the engine to plummet and drop safely into the boxed-in valley—and level off onto what had seemed upon approach too short an airstrip.
How like the flight of some miraculous bird.
The altitude had done depressing things to my lungs, and at the Cuzco hotel, the staff had to bring an oxygen tank and medicine to the room. The shock of this new environment, viewed from the taxicab, and combined with my sickness, put me in an altered state as I climbed into bed next to the oxygen tank. I felt very old, like I imagined someone old must feel.
All our wounds are entanglements and we don’t always understand the physicality of that. Lying there, I felt like I was floating and ethereal—as if I didn’t exist—and yet, also, the pressure in my lungs, the weight on my chest and creaking pain. The lightness, the heaviness, were a contradiction and confusion to me, then and now.
Perhaps as confusing is how I remember the hotel room, because it seemed to me that the long, wide window to the left of my bed looked out on a mountainside too close—that the hotel had been built right beside it, but imperfectly, so a shaft of space about seven to ten feet wide existed between the outer hotel wall and the mountain.
This brought the side of the mountain up close in a kind of microscopic way, even as I drifted fitfully in and out of sleep. I could see the delicate miniature world of moss and lichen, rich loam and rock. I remember a wealth of yellow-black beetles crawling through the green, glistening at times in a golden shaft of light. I recall also frogs and snails, but I don’t know if this idea of the window beyond the room as such a fertile ark is true, or something I filled in later.
All our wounds are entanglements and we don’t always understand the physicality of that.
I thought of this miraculous biosphere in terms of the reward of unexpected windows, like the Advent calendars our Lutheran grandparents always sent to us around the holidays, or like the meticulously detailed dioramas in natural history museums. A world set apart, that lived apart, and it almost felt like I was peering into another place, not even part of Earth.
That space distracted from my condition more than the radio or the books I couldn’t concentrate on, and anything that distracted me made me less light, less heavy, and more what I had been told I was supposed to be: not sick. Don’t be sick.
I drifted through dreams and a cool blackness. I drifted through quicksand and solid earth. The room felt hot and then cold again and there came a time when my parents and sister had left and I turned on my side and glanced once more at the window, amid the discomfort, and what I can now admit was an intense fear of dying, no matter how irrational.
Two hummingbirds had appeared in the window, against those rich green textures of moss, of lichen. Iridescent flames, feathered in red and gold and black and emerald, hovering there. The most unexpected thing I could have imagined, and I was transfixed, unsure if it could be real. The hummingbirds flew in circles in front of the window, engaged in some elaborate courtship ritual, a hovering dance. Their eyes black tears, beaks delicate scimitars, wings a fragile blur twinned to the rapid beat of my heart.
Oblivious to me, they hovered like tiny deities, alien yet intimate, for twenty or thirty seconds, even if in memory the time stretches and stretches. I could not look away.
As I watched them, I started to cry, because I was so weary and tired of being tired that it was, in my condition, too much, too intense, too much beauty. How I felt, too, in a way that seems sentimental now, like this was the most amazing thing I would ever see, and nothing else would compare. And I couldn’t figure out how to process this miracle, this wonderment, and already the bittersweet of it alongside the fear that I’d die of asthma. Even now, more than four decades later, it is hard not to tear up thinking about that moment.
I remember making some kind of reflexive sound, to tell my parents, my sister, about the miracle I was seeing, forgetting they had left the room. I remember then some period of time passing and they had returned and I looked toward them and then back at the window.
But the quality of the light had changed and the world had changed and the hummingbirds were gone, and I was pointing at the window and making no sense because it was hard to breathe and talk and cry at the same time.
What would I have said anyway? What words could have told anyone how deeply this experience had moved me and, in some sense, changed me forever?
I still don’t know what species of hummingbird I saw and yet I know the moment was real. Even if some days the fact that they left before my parents could see them makes me wonder if they were a hallucination created by my condition, the medication, the incredible detail of the mountainside.
I struggle with whether it matters, exactly. Does it matter that I can’t recall the exact pattern of their feathers or how long they hovered there? Should it matter? To try to fill in more detail is to begin to write a fiction. I’ll never remember, if I ever did. Instead, in my head, I have a kind of music or emotion that captures every second with a vividness I can never put into words. And because I cannot find the words, the perverse human condition means that I keep trying to put that emotion, at least, into my stories. All the beauty and all the difficulty of it.
Something about the idea of a direct conduit, strikes me, too. Something about it being a kind of message on a tight circuit that, once received, I now broadcast in a wide band. The window and what it showed me and what I received from it, at exactly the right time.
For if the hummingbirds were the message, then the window was the messenger and it, too, has appeared, in various forms, in almost all of my fiction. I pride myself on not repeating myself in my novels, but I must confess that beyond the differences of structure, of characters and situations, there will always occur in my novels a moment of transcendence or horror, literal or figurative, that involves looking through a window into another place. As if I am, painfully and ecstatically and without regret, stuck back in that hotel room, staring through the looking glass . . . and receiving whatever stares back at me.
Part of this, I know as an adult, is about how the encounter occurred in a space where the human element met the nonhuman. Without both things—the moment and how I perceived it through my condition—none of what came next for me as a writer would exist. The hummingbirds in the window would just be a detail, a footnote, in some short story, with no resonance or mystical repetition.
Because the nonhuman world exists in a complexity we still don’t grasp, it is easy to see something true and pure about an essential connection to “nature,” to a world beyond the human that exists without us, that might be better off without us, and whose connections and communications are often so invisible to us.
We catch more than a hint of that world at certain times, if we’re lucky, but we don’t ever see it whole. We don’t ever experience it onrushing in its entirety, and, if we did, it would overload our senses and our systems and we would be as before a mighty wave and helpless and washed away.
So when we come to the edge of this complexity, when the world through our receptivity or condition, is laid bare, we experience both the wonder of it and the regret: that the moment will recede from us, that we cannot get closer for longer. That we cannot even talk about it without seeming foolish at times, because, at least in the monoculture, that which exists in the ecstatic space is childish or frivolous or not of use.
It is acceptable to write the mystical or ecstatic into fiction—the epiphany is ubiquitous. But people are uncomfortable with hearing about the mystical or ecstatic in the art or craft or process of writing. We are sentimental if we speak of it. We are melodramatic. We are impractical.
We have let in too much of the world, and let it overwhelm us.
(Yet, why are we not always and forever, in every moment, overwhelmed by the miracle of the world?)
In some sense, fiction is the reclamation of meaning from an existence whose true meaning is hidden from us, the ordering of elements that in their purest form exist unordered or have their own order we will never understand. So, to document a revelatory moment is to render it mundane, to force words to express what words can never express. It is a fading of reality or hyperreality that gnaws at you and haunts you. But, still, sometimes you have try. (The darkly humorous side is that as an adult I am a ridiculous hypochondriac who imbues birds with too much personality, but this, too, becomes useful in novels.)
Hummingbird Salamander is only the latest instance in which I have written about hummingbirds in my fiction. They have appeared so many times, in so many ways. But this is the first time that element is integral to the plot, as opposed to use as the underpinnings of a scene or a resonating, symbolic image. Perhaps because it’s slightly dangerous to use something so personal in your fiction, and doubly so because the hummingbird already comes with the associations people make—the attributes attached to it—whether cultural or otherwise.
Aware of imposing on the novel too much of my experience, I strove in Hummingbird Salamander for a kind of subjective objectivity. Rather than create a fictitious hummingbird for the novel, I asked a biologist (Dr. Meghan Smith Brown) to create those details, including a full life cycle. The naiad hummingbird is, by the time of the events in the novel, presumed extinct, for all of the usual reasons, but has been a formative influence on the second main character, Silvina, a dead environmentalist.
From a writer’s perspective, the idea of some kind of constraint is compelling, because constraint functions as resistance, and conflict and story occur when the writer has to deal with resistance. The constraint here was that I had to pretend the created hummingbird was real and that no aspect of my novel could deviate from the facts of its imagined existence. Instead of coming up with details that might just reinforce my existing idea of plot and structure, I would have to react to someone else’s vision.
The second reason for this approach came from recognizing that my own memory from in Cuzco might overwhelm what would be natural as the reactions and memories of the character of Silvina, the eco-activist whose life is transformed by the naiad hummingbird. A hummingbird imposed upon me made it easier to separate my feelings from that of the character, for her own ecstatic encounter to have its own reality and validity, and not just be a disguised version of my own.
Because we are also experiencing Silvina’s reactions through the lens of the narrator, Jane, the idea of distance is even more important, especially as Jane, in a different way from Silvina, comes to appreciate the miracle that is a hummingbird. Some of this is also about location—Silvina encounters a hummingbird on the ground, sipping water from a puddle, which is an extremely rare occurrence. Jane, at one remove, is brought to awe by the account of the hummingbird’s long and hazardous migration from the Pacific Northwest to a country in South America.
Neither context resembles my own, but the magician’s trick is that my encounter with hummingbirds in Cuzco still exists in the novel, in the sense that thinking of that moment allowed me when writing other scenes to conjure up the emotion of the ecstatic moment, the encounter with the beautiful unknown. The world beyond the world we know.
The other truth is that when the writing goes well, this is how it feels: the endless opening up of a miraculous window and a feeling of both the rightness of that and the danger of that. It is also part of how I try in all things to retain the curiosity and the passionate engagement and mystery of being a child, which is the state of not being an adult, and something more.
In my life generally now, I do not need to hold onto the catharsis or the heightened reality of my encounter with hummingbirds in Cuzco, even if the memory of it much earlier, held fast, helped me past the worst parts of my childhood.
For one thing, I know hummingbirds better now. I’ve seen hummingbirds so many times in so many places. We have hummingbirds in the yard where we live in North Florida. I watch them from the window, staring down into the wooded ravine behind our house, without them being aware.
They are fierce hunters who pick insects off trees, drink nectar from firebush blossoms, and come to the red nectar feeder, where they feel safe enough to sit for long minutes, resting and refueling. I have even been fortunate enough to see one drinking from porous watermelon rind in the backyard, beneath my office window.
My relationship with hummingbirds in Florida is altogether a prosaic but more comfortable and lived-in experience, and perhaps deeper because of that. I understand what I see now, or think I do.
When I am very lucky, a hummingbird will come to me when I pause on the walkway. Emerald and ruby, the bird will hover just a few feet away, at eye level, considering me. Wondering about me. Taking my measure. We know each other now, a little. And so I am revealed, staring back, and I don’t mind.
Because I know another world is possible when I see a hummingbird—and that it is this world. Our world, now. O
Jeff VanderMeer’s newest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, is available now.