Photography and Writing by James McCarthy

The shadow of the hummingbird


Shortly after dawn on a cold December morning, while opening the curtains to our bedroom, I was startled to see the shadow of a hummingbird projected on a closet door. It was too late in the season for hummingbirds … yet, there it was.

And then it dawned on me: The shadow simply was a projection of the stained-glass hummingbird that hovers year-round in the lower right pane of our bedroom window. The slant of the rising sun was exactly right to create a shadow-box effect of a hovering hummingbird suffused in the golden light of an early winter dawn. I found it beautiful.

Each morning I looked forward to that surreal hummingbird hovering in our bedroom, until eventually my getting-up time no longer coincided with the optimum slant of sunlight needed to create the hummingbird’s shadow. For a few weeks I arose in darkness and the memory faded.

What put me in mind of it again were two recent events. The first was a March 31 radio interview that NPR reporter Renee Montagne had recorded with the 81-year-old South African playwright Athol Fugard. They were talking about his new play, “The Shadow of the Hummingbird,” which had a one-month run at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. this April. It’s a two-character play, with Fugard performing in the role of the grandfather, Oupa, who has a special relationship with his grandson Boba who adores him.

In the play, Fugard reads from his personal diaries and notebooks on stage as he portrays an old man with a passion for listing and categorizing birds who realizes late in life — thanks to his grandson — that he’s led an overly intellectual life. The grandfather urges his grandson to hold fast to his innocence.

Fugard shares with Montagne a journal entry that inspired his play: “It is Monday, the 15th, July, 2013. I was about to leave my chair, urgent matters needed my attention, and then a butterfly landed on a wall, and folded its wings in prayer. Also this morning, the shadow of a hummingbird on the floor at my feet, a perfect outline.”

Here’s what Fugard makes of that journal entry, translating it into art through his imagined character Oupa speaking to Boba:
“Five sunbirds, flying around in that forest of love. I counted them — one, two, three, four, five — sparking in the sunshine as they hopped from flower to flower, dipping their beaks in, and me shouting hallelujah. Yes, Boba. I did shout it. But ever so softly, because I didn't want to break the spell of that moment.”

Montagne draws out of Fugard the playwright’s realization that it’s not only his imagined grandfather character — who sees himself as coming to the end — who is trying to get back that innocence of childhood. It’s also himself: “
In the course of acquiring all this so-called knowledge, I've lost something. I've lost contact with something that I had. Because the moment when he saw those five sunbirds, that sort of rejoicing he had, the hallelujah that he wanted to shout aloud, all of that was there from my notebooks. And I wonder about myself now. I haven't shouted hallelujah for a long time, you know. Can I do it once more? I would like to believe that.

The shadow Fugard saw was of a real hummingbird; mine was not. But for both of us, the shadow reality caught us by surprise and became an occasion for wonder.

The second event putting me in mind of the shadow hummingbird was a conversation via Skype I had two weeks ago with my friend Richard.

Richard told me that the day before — and just two days after he and his wife had placed hummingbird feeders outside their house in Chattanooga, Tennessee — sure enough, they saw a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering before a feeder, dipping its beak into the spout to siphon its life-giving honey water.

Just that quick casual mention got me thinking about the wonder of these tiny birds that weigh no more than 4 grams — less than a nickel, 3.5 inches from tip of beak to tip of tail — that are now heading north from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. Averaging 20 miles per day, they must eat and drink constantly to keep their inner fire stoked during the return flight to their summer breeding grounds. The pace of this migration coincides with the northward unfolding of spring and the blossoming of the flowers and the arrival of insects that will feed them.

Day after day they make their way north, continuously feeding, continuously hours away from starvation, storing just enough energy to survive overnight and resume their journey the next morning.

I won’t expect to see them here in Maine until late May or early June. The first sighting, I’m pretty sure, will take me by surprise. I will startled by a sudden zipping, followed by a moment’s hovering, as a ruby-throated hummingbird sips nectar from one of the bleeding heart flowers blooming in our backyard.

I hope I’ll be mindful enough to whisper ‘Hallelujah.’