A hummingbird perched on my finger for a few moments this summer. As he almost-and-then-finally landed, the gusts from the palpitant wings made me nearly flinch. He rested there while he sipped some hummer-juice. I could barely feel the “talons” of his cloud-light body—and then he was off.
But I wasn’t the only one. Several family members also waited and experienced one of the most remarkable human-animal interactions of our lives. And no, these were not tame hummingbirds. We were at a remote cabin around 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, and though plenty of wildflowers grow in these forests, the hummer-juice is too good to pass up. At the feeder, several hummingbirds swarmed, so it didn’t take long for one to become brave enough and desirous enough for a sweet sip of sugar-water even if it meant perching on a human finger.
Bridget, my daughter (pictured here), moved around too much for a hummingbird to land, but her face expresses what we all felt: a mixture of connection, contentment, wonder, surprise, delight, and joy at being so close to such a fiercely active and curious bird.
As we drove back home, my thoughts wandered to Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”—that well-known poem about an encounter with an “otherworldy” creature. Nothing really happens in the first 20 some stanzas of the bus journey until, suddenly, at night, the bus jolts to a stop. A moose looms in the roadway. The passengers all marvel at the creature, and the speaker wonders “Why, why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?”
I don’t think “joy” is quite the right word. But that is why (I suggest) Bishop repeats “why,” ducks into parentheses, qualifies “joy” with “sweet sensation,” and uses well-timed line breaks in order to introduce silences. “Joy” does not always contain wonder, surprise, delight, connection, silence, and/or that sense of contentment, of being at home.
But when “joy” does contain all those other nuances, it is, perhaps, the best word Bishop could have chosen.
It seems too easy to say the hummingbird and moose encounters exemplify the biophilia hypothesis (that human minds are wired to vibrate to other animals)—and yet why else did we stay on the porch for a couple of hours? Why else did the bus driver turn off the engine?
In this age of mass extinction, I want my daughters to have as many interactions with other animals as possible, and for them to experience that sweet sensation, and for them to know the power of the hummingbird’s wings from feeling the tiny gusts on their hand, and for them to know the heft of a toad from holding one that is not stuffed or plastic.
I’ll be teaching a course this fall, Animals in Literature and Society, and I’ll be sharing hummingbird stories, toad stories, whale stories, squirrel stories, spider stories, fire-fly stories, and I look forward to hearing stories from students. I hope to push students to think deeply about what it means to interact with other species in this age of mass extinction where each story becomes a mixture of ode and elegy. How many more years will hummingbirds be able to continue their migrations? Will my daughters continue to seek out that sweet sensation?—or will such a desire to connect with other species wane as they grow older? How do we maintain that sweet sensation for the critters we see on a daily basis? How does (or how should) the knowledge of mass extinction affect our interactions with the critters we see every day? And what about the hummingbird’s agency, the moose’s agency, and the implications of the fact that they look at us too? Does the biophilia hypothesis pertain to other species? How do we know? How can we know?
I hope the course instills a sense of gratitude, humility, and responsibility for being alive on this shared planet.
All this work by Aaron Moe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://aaronmoe.com.