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.’
The god of this day is snow. Large snowflakes drift down in the night sky while we’re sleeping. They gather on the branches of trees and the boughs of pines, blanketing rooftops. All is quiet. We awake to a world made new by snow.
The snow-god calls me out of the warmth of this house and I am obedient to its wishes.
I go down to the river. I walk through an evergreen forest that has become silent in the snowfall. No cawing crows, no chickadees singing their name from within the woods. Do they wait for the falling snow to end? Do they perch in zazen, patient and quiet?
Boughs bend from the weight of snow. The trail before me is white with the absence of footsteps. I stop to listen to the silence of falling snow.
As soon as I stop to listen, just off the trail, a chickadee alights on a pine bough. It seems curious about me. Just as the thought arises -- “Well, hello, my little friend …” – the chickadee flies off. A small shower of snowflakes as it disappears into the forest.
White and black, a stand of birch trees in the snow.
Rabbit tracks crossing the trail. Beech leaves covered in snow.
The sound of rushing water as I descend a ravine on the trail that takes me down to the Cathance River. Muffled, though, by the snow.
I walk like an old man, not wanting to tumble down the snow-covered icy incline leading to the river. Almost to the bottom, in a half crouch, my left foot slips … and I tumble any way. Slide the rest of the way down like a kid on a Flexible Flyer sled. No one is present to watch and, perhaps, laugh at my ungainly descent. Of course, that also means no one is present to help if I injure myself -- a reminder to be careful.
Base of a tree like two pencils point to point: When did the beaver leave behind this unfinished task and will it resume gnawing this tree when warm weather returns again?
The river is high, no doubt because of all the rain we’ve had the week before. Snow-laden boughs occasionally unburden themselves, sending a shower of snow into the river’s rushing water. Even in winter the water cycle continues, from clouds to streams and rivers and lakes and eventually the ocean where it begins all over again.
Ice along the edges of rocks and the river’s bank diverts the river’s flow.
Tall pines: A cathedral roofed in snow. No hymns, no chants, no rosaries whispered in the back-most pew. I recall the line from a poem by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose order observed the Rule of Silence: “Love winter when the plant says nothing.”
Climbing up from the ravine, a hint of sun. Snow is no longer falling. The god of the day has moved on. Already the pines and trees are divesting themselves of snow, reverting to their old familiar appearances. How quickly a new world becomes old.
When cormorants appear on the rocks below the Brunswick-Topsham hydroelectric dam and falls of the Androscoggin River, I know the annual run of river herring has begun. There are probably other signs — such as the water temperature — but I rely on the cormorants to tell me what is happening below the river’s surface. From what is seen, I become aware of what is unseen: the blueback herring and alewives that begin their great migration from the ocean, swimming upstream along our major rivers, the St. Croix, Penobscot, St. George, Damariscotta, Sheepscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin, as well as any number of lesser tributaries. Upriver they swim, determinedly against the river’s flow that is swollen by the spring runoff; determinedly too because they are hunted, the prey of any number of predators, including osprey and eagles, larger fish, and, of course, cormorants. The migration begins in early May and typically lasts well into June.
like Jesus hanging from the cross
cormorants dry their wings
beneath the river’s dam
On the Androscoggin, and several other of the major rivers as well, the passage of the river herring to their spawning grounds upriver is blocked by concrete dams. At the Brunswick-Topsham dam they have a man-made fish-ladder to assist them. It’s a long concrete fishway, with a series of locks that the alewives will follow until they get to the pool at the top, where they will be sucked up into a holding tank on a truck, which will deliver them to their spawning grounds at various upriver locales. To get to that fishway, the alewives, blueback herring and occasional salmon must pass through a gauntlet of waiting cormorants. With their bodies half-submerged in the river, the cormorants patrol the river … with only their long necks and heads sticking up out of the water, looking very much a submarine’s periscope.
If you were to judge the contest between cormorant and an alewife based on how cormorants look when they are trying to gain altitude as they take off from the water, you might be inclined, as I have been, to give the fish better than even odds of escape. Cormorants flap wildly, their webbed feet seemingly a drag impeding their ascent, until somehow, eventually, they begin to rise, tuck their legs against their torso and fly away. It’s hardly elegant.
I hadn’t given much thought to how they perform underwater … until I came upon a YouTube video taken with an underwater camera showing a cormorant in hot pursuit of a fish. Like penguins and puffins and other birds that hunt their prey underwater, cormorants are really designed more for their underwater activities than those above. The cormorant zigged and zagged, following its prey like a heat-seeking missile. I would not want to be an alewife with a cormorant on my tail. More often than not, I’m guessing, the cormorant gets its prey. How it’s able to swallow that fish whole remains a mystery to me, for I cannot imagine that a speared alewife or blueback herring surrenders its one life passively, without a struggle. Eventually, either because its gullet is full or it needs a breath of air, a cormorant surfaces, then lets the current take it downstream until quick as a wink, it disappears below the surface to renew the hunt.
how strong the pull
swimming against the flow
alewives keep on going
A “Maine River Herring Fact Sheet” posted on the Department of Marine Resources website provides some answers to the question “Why are alewives important to the state of Maine?”
What’s interesting to me is that all the reasons listed regard alewives as serving some higher purpose than their own right to swim freely, feed, spawn and swim back to the great ocean again. Namely, their purpose is to be eaten by other creatures. And so, we learn “they provide an alternative prey item for osprey, eagles, great blue heron, loons and other fish-eating birds at the same time juvenile Atlantic salmon are migrating downriver.” Not only that. They also “provide cover for upstream migrating adult salmon that may be preyed on by eagles or osprey, and for young salmon in the estuaries and open ocean that might be captured by seals.”
How lucky salmon are to have so many alewives providing “cover,” giving themselves up that Salmo salar might live!
Everything eats alewives, according to the DMR: “Striped bass, bluefish, tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, American eel, brook trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, lake trout, landlocked salmon, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, pickerel, pike, white and yellow perch, seabirds, bald eagle, osprey, great blue heron, gulls, terns, cormorants, seals, whales, otter, mink, fox, raccoon, skunk, weasel, fisher and turtles.”
It doesn’t end there. Alewives provide “revenue” for 35 towns that sell “commercial harvesting rights to alewives on 39 streams and rivers.” These alewives are “recognized” for “the value” they provided as “preferred bait for the spring lobster fishery.”
Lucky for alewives, then, that each female produces 60,000 to 100,000 eggs. Those eggs hatch in about three days, at which point, it seems, alewives are fair game for just about every other species with which they share their freshwater spawning habitat. From mid-July to early November, the young alewives begin their seaward migration. How many actually make it depends upon “the availability of feed in the lakes, the total numbers of young produced in a particular watershed, and the length of time they remain in the freshwater environment.”
as above, so below
so many alewives self-sacrifice
salmon are more worthy
For a long time I thought of milkweed as a weird plant. I didn’t know what to make of its spongy pod that oozed a white sticky liquid if you squeezed when it was still green. Then, in the fall, the pods burst open, sending thread-fine feather seedlings off to propagate themselves in the fields I’d go walking in near my mom’s home in Ohio. By late November the pods became transformed into dry empty shells, dulled grey by the wind and sun. Milkweed stalks listed into the coming winter winds like drunks weaving this way and that as they stumbled down a city sidewalk.
My good friend Richard Dubé opened my eyes to its rightful place in the world. It was the summer of ’82. I’d just graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in English literature. I fell back to my old ways and became, once again, a day laborer. I’d been pulling weeds in the back nursery at Lucas Tree Experts, where Richard worked as a landscape designer, and he’d come outside to see how I was doing. He pointed to a small cluster of milkweed plants, pods unopened, still green and standing tall.
“Do you know what I think of when I see milkweed?” he asked me.
Here, I should mention that Richard is a trained naturalist. He earned his degree in forestry at Hocking Technical College in southeastern Ohio. That’s where he met Mary, fell in love and got married. I missed their wedding, but they didn’t hold that against me. A few years later they moved to Maine, allowing my friendship with Richard to deepen with weekend hikes in the mountains of New Hampshire and western Maine, beach excursions on Cape Elizabeth, and regular bird-watching and botany walks at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Sometimes Mary would join us, but more often it would be just Richard and me ambling along with cameras or binoculars around our necks, ever alert to the possibility of the world revealing itself as wondrous strange. For me, those walks invariably were enriched by Richard’s impromptu lessons in botany.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “The pod looks like an Irish currach, the bunched seedlings like the scales of a fish. What about you?”
“Mexico,” he said.
“Mexico? How so?”
“The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is the only butterfly that migrates both north and south. For a long time no one knew where they spent the winter months. Now we know. They winter in the mountains of central Mexico. They fly there by the millions, clustering in colonies on pine and oyamel fir trees. They’re so thick the trees turn orange in color and branches sag from the weight.”
“What’s that got to do with milkweed?” I asked.
“Everything,” he said. “Without milkweed, monarchs wouldn’t exist. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is the principal food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars. It’s named after Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing … which is interesting, because the milky latex in the leaves is a toxin. The caterpillars accumulate these toxins and when they turn into butterflies the toxins are concentrated in their wings and exoskeletons. Birds and other predators learn that the monarch butterflies taste bad. Sometimes they even vomit. Long story short: they avoid preying on monarchs.”
“OK, so milkweeds are good for monarchs. What’s the connection to Mexico?”
“That’s where they go for the winter, by the millions …”
That conversation took place almost 30 years ago. Even now, remembering the gist of it, the tingle of the epiphany I felt comes rushing back to me. My friend’s generous lesson might well be the first conscious understanding I had of the powerful reality of coevolution and the multiple networks that connect … well, everything.
“Milkweeds, monarchs and Mexico” became for me a shorthand reminder of how our world is, truly, one vast web of inter-being.
In ancient India, this understanding is conveyed by the beautiful image of “Indra’s net,” which stretches infinitely in all directions, with a single jewel glittering at each vertex, reflecting infinitely all the other jewels that are similarly strung like a galaxy of glittering stars. As above so below: delve into any small patch of earth, pick a plant or an insect or bird, and then follow the jewel-adorned threads of net outward and see where they might take you. Monarch butterflies ride the wind, making their way south to their wintering grounds in a volcanic mountain region of central Mexico; Indra, the god of rain and thunderstorms, is the “one who rides the clouds” or sometimes a white elephant. Which image requires more imagination to believe as true?
A good many years later my simplistic notion of the monarch’s migration from the milkweed fields of Maine to a small mountainside forest in Mexico took an unexpected leap into a deeper realm of mystery.
I’d been reading an article, probably in a National Geographic magazine, reporting that monarchs flying north from Mexico die long before it’s time to head back the next winter.
What that means is that the monarchs’ migration, both north and south, is completed by a different generation than the one beginning the journey -- four generations later, according to researchers.
Four generations, four different butterflies, each going through the four stages of the monarch’s life cycle: Egg, then larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult butterfly. Four stages during one life cycle, and that life cycle goes through four generations in one year during the monarchs’ migration from, or to, Mexico. Truly, Indra’s net! Each generation of butterfly enjoys a life of about two to six weeks … except for the fourth generation. These butterflies, born in late summer or early fall, will live for up to eight months, time enough to make the long journey to Mexico, where they will hibernate, mate and die just as a new generation emerges to journey northward and start the cycle all over again.
Somehow, the map to the wintering grounds gets passed on to the generation that needs to find its way to where it all begins, or ends, take your pick. The monarchs’ migration is guided by an inborn genetic GPS system over thousands of miles, with fields of milkweed plants along the journey ripening just in time to provide essential food and cover for eggs and larvae as well as flowers for the emerging butterflies to pollinate.
Not quite a month ago, on March 14, a headline migrated into my computer courtesy of Common Dreams.org: “Herbicides for GMOs Driving Monarch Butterfly Populations to ‘Ominous’ Brink.” I felt like I’d just been told a dear friend was ailing, in the hospital, prognosis uncertain.
Too quickly I jumped to the conclusion that it had something to do with continued logging of the monarch colonies’ winter grounds in the Monarch Butterfly Special Biosphere Reserve. Created in 1986 to protect the forests they depended up, I knew that logging of the pine and oyamel fir trees has continued.
But the Common Dreams article cites a newer threat: The use of genetically modified crops in the American Midwest, accompanied by the intensive use of the milkweed-killing herbicide glysophate on 120 million acres of crops, according to staff writer Lauren McCauley.
A critical feeding ground — the milkweed plants growing up between millions of acres of soybean and corn — is being killed off because Monsanto has genetically modified the seeds of those crops to enable the mature crops to withstand extremely heavy doses of its glysophate herbicide, called Roundup. The corn and soybean genetically modified seed is called Roundup Ready; milkweed and other wild plants that flower and provide nectar to bees as well as butterflies have no such protection.
“Before Roundup-Ready crops, weed control was accomplished by running a tiller through those fields and chopping up the weeds and turning over the soil, but not affecting the crops,” Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas insect ecologist told Yale Environment 360. “The milkweed survives that sort of tillage to some extent. So there were maybe 20, 30, 40 plants per acre out there, enough so that you could see them … They have effectively eliminated milkweed from almost all of the habitat that monarchs used to use.”
The monarch colonies in Mexico that used to average 22 acres hit a record low of 2.9 acres this winter. Taylor estimates the monarchs’ population declined by 59% from the previous year. Along with bees, monarchs are one of the principal pollinating insects in North America. Bees are dying in record numbers as well.
Monsanto, meanwhile, is the beneficiary of a rider attached to a spending bill aimed at averting a government shutdown. Congress approved HR 933 and President Obama signed it into law on March 26. The rider, which seems fairly described as “The Monsanto Protection Act,” effectively bars federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of controversial genetically modified or genetically engineered seeds, no matter what health issues may arise concerning GMOs in the future. Many members of Congress say they were unaware of the rider when they approved the bill. A grassroots campaign is under way to strike down that 11th-hour rider.
Monarch butterflies are heading North in one of the world’s greatest migrations. How many will not find the food they need to complete the journey?
Indra’s net is being torn asunder.
how long … how long!
milkweeds, monarchs, Mexico