Thursday, September 20, 2012

Staying Out of the Way

or Resting Lightly

Sometimes you're just not the one who matters, and so you just don't move.  When untamed lives that are not rabbits come to a tiny, urban garden, you do your best to efface yourself, and let them experience the garden as if without you.  Photos?  Forget them.  They're not important.  The slightest gesture toward your camera, even the subtlest tilt of the lens, is enough to spook a shy being.  It's better not to move.

Hummingbirds aren't particularly "shy beings," but they have their limits, too, the moments when they forget the roar of gargantuan hunger and remember vulnerability.  The black-chinned hummingbirds have been gorging on the agastache in the big urns this summer—the ones arm's length away from the Adirondack chair, with flowers that overhang the footrest.  The hummingbirds are often so close that the cool breath of their wings blows over my feet.   I try not to move when they're that near, but my idea of stillness is not theirs.  Some change of expression, some tiny change, will make them look up in startlement and vanish.

Perhaps to such small birds the line that seems delicately drawn to me, the fine hair between blithe unconcern and precipitate flight, is wide and nuanced.  The light speed change between feeding and fleeing may be a measured, thoughtful process to them.  The lift of a finger, such a small motion, spans the full length of their bodies.

A hummingbird's-eye view of hummingbird mint (or licorice mint, or sunset hyssop, Agastache rupestris)

At a distance details blur together.  When hummingbirds feed at the gaura in the central bed, it's hard to tell the young of either gender from the adult females.  They look remarkably alike in any case.  From inches away, though, you begin to wonder.  You see peculiarities of behavior—experiments, moments of clumsiness—that tell their own tale.  A bird will aim at a flower in a light wind and miss, several times running; it will try buds that haven't opened, insistently, perplexedly.  It will poke at the gap between a flower and its corolla, and then back off, and look, and look, through first one eye, then the other.  It will poke at the gap again, before finally finding the opening it seeks.  Its round belly will drag on the flowers below it, like a keel scraping on the shoals.  It will rest in the desert olive for minutes at a stretch, and not fight the next hummingbird that comes along.  It will feed briefly, and then find its perch to rest again.  A bird that does all those things...is most likely a fledgling.

One was feeding at the agastache recently when my toes, a foot and a half away, twitched involuntarily.  The bird startled.  Hovering, it eyed my feet in a fascinated, speculative way.  Were they a danger?  Were they edible?  Its head tilted from one side to the other.  I don't know what conclusions it came to, except the one about inedibility; I don't believe it ever made a mental connection between my toes and the rest of me.  And how could it?  Five feet seven inches of human are a lot for a bird to grasp all at once, when it doesn't really need to.


Last week for the second time (that I know of) a flock of blue-gray gnatcatchers descended on my desert olives.  They're almost as tiny as hummingbirds, only round like a ball, with twitching tail feathers and a thin, sharp bill.  They speak to one another constantly, and they move constantly, like the gnats and small insects they eat, like fish darting in an aquarium.  Their colors are subtle variations on gray flannel, lighter on the belly, darker around the crown.

Flycatchers, too.  I've seen them a few times, half again the size of the gnatcatchers, with the same restlessness under less pressure.  Their tails twitch gently as they perch or flit from branch to branch, from tree to tree.

These new birds are all probably migrants, just passing through on their way south, but I'm (almost) as thrilled as if they were nesting here.  The garden is beginning to attract Birds-that-are-not-finches, truly wild birds, no matter how briefly.  The desert olives have grown taller, their crowns broader.  They offer more in the way of shelter and safety; they attract a better class of bug.  But I have no pictures to offer of these moments of presence.  I only have memories shaped vaguely into words of that instant when your breath catches and you freeze, while shining black eyes look brightly from every tree, less than your own body-length away.

Desert olives (or New Mexico privet, Forestiera neomexicana)

You are irrelevant to these small lives, and rightfully so.  You mean them no harm.  You aren't going to hunt them for food or throw stones at them for wickedness.  You wish them well, but any good you've done them is indirect.  You've planted and nurtured the trees; you've let the sand cherries grow like weeds; you've kept the bird bath filled and clean.  You've laid the groundwork—and then you've mostly gotten out of the way, and let life get on with it.  But birds don't know these things.  They don't have the luxury to weigh degrees of harm and good.  They can't risk trust, they can't take the long view.  You will never be able to tame them, or show them likelihood, or accustom them to human presence.  So you try not to be a noticeable presence at all.  You just don't move.


A hummingbird had come to the agastache fresh from another part of the garden.  A white petal of gaura had fallen on her head and rested there as she hovered and fed.  She flew from one flower to another and another, wings moving faster than vision, that wrinkled white petal perched on her head like a lace cap.  The sight could have been comical, but it wasn't.  The petal sat too lightly on the feather-light bird as she fenced just as lightly with gravity.  She was graceful and deft; the long tubes of hummingbird mint barely moved as she tapped them for nectar.  An adult, not a fledgling.  She had mastered the art of lightness.

Appleblossom grass (Gaura lindheimeri 'Whirling Butterflies')

A lot of gardening is about heavy lifting—the bags of mulch and potting soil, the shovels full of dirt and sand and amendments.  A lot of it is about labor.  No more than to maintain a mown lawn, but still, labor:  weeding and dividing, pruning and transplanting.  Paradoxically, the goal of all the hard work is to rest lightly on whatever earth we have.  To make a big impact, perhaps; to concentrate nature with an intensity even she might not manage on her own, and create safe conditions for wild things that compensate for losses elsewhere.  But then to step out of the way whenever possible, and let life get on with it.  We work for the sake of those moments of held breath and awed stillness, when we try to be patio furniture while a new bird perches inquisitively in a young tree.  We want to enjoy the nectar while not disturbing the flower.  We want to master the art of lightness, to our own scale.

The lightness of a fallen petal on the head of a hummingbird.

22 comments:

  1. "The lightness of a fallen petal on the head of a hummingbird."

    - That sentence reminds me of the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt's motto "touch the earth lightly". It has always been an inspiration to me; whatever we do will have an impact on the globe, both when we garden, when we go to the supermarket and when we turn on a light switch, so we should at least make an effort to make conscious choices.

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    1. Søren, I find it a little unsettling how much of an impact small actions can have on the environment, especially since we're often several (or many) steps removed from their consequences!

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  2. Your sentence about us laboring hard to rest lightly on the earth gives me a lot to think about. Am I resting lightly on the earth? I think I am still a fledgling, a bit awkward and heavy, not knowing if the toe is connected to the head. Great post, Stacy. And I love the thought of a hummingbird with a petal hat! How chic!

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    1. Holley, I think we're all a bit awkward and heavy when it comes to treating the earth as it deserves! I think of you as one of the more graceful ones, with your gardens that are kind to butterflies.
      The petal hat was awfully fetching!

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  3. a better class of bug - but of course! How your writing succeeds in enjoying the nectar, while not disturbing the flowers.

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    1. Diana, thank you so much. I'm glad you enjoyed this one.

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  4. I didn't realise until reading this post that my open-toed sandals could be deterring hummingbirds from visiting my garden. Unfortunately, slugs don't seem to be bothered by toe spasms.

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    1. b-a-g, I'm sure the only thing keeping hummingbirds out of the UK is the footwear. You could start a campaign to lure them with closed-toed shoes. Or an experiment?

      On the other hand, slugs are easier to photograph. (Take the good with the bad, right?)

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  5. So beautifully spoken/written. I do wonder how it is possible to get such incredible photographs of hummingbirds. Like you, I only have to twitch and they fly away!

    As for the 'better class of bug' - too funny.

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    1. Thank you, Karen! Maybe if we dressed in garish, floral prints it would be easier to photograph hummingbirds--if they thought we were food, nothing would keep them away...

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  6. Stacy such brilliant and eloquent words that I try to explain to people. I garden for critters so when I am in the garden I am intruding on them...I try to sit still in spots so the critters feel safe...the frogs are used to me and insects are barely noticing me, but hummers and birds do not stray too far into the garden. I love the idea of being light in the garden...I will say if I stay in certain parts of the garden and stand motionless with camera ready I will get a few good shots occasionally..

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    1. Donna, most gardeners I've known have really been naturalists at heart, though I've been learning that some are actually pure plants-people through and through. (!) I always enjoy reading about the wildlife that comes to your garden and miss some of those critters from back east. Last summer I had better luck with photos, but this year I moved the Adirondack chair and I think it's just enough closer that it's testing the birds' comfort zones.

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  7. I do struggle to find the balance between getting on with the mowing and turning compost and what have you, and simply standing still and watching and breathing (and silently cursing for not having my camera when I see a new visitor). Beautiful words, Stacy and a beautiful thoughtful post - I forgive you the lack of blue-gray gnatcatcher portraits. (They're cute!! Least Google images says so). I've missed visiting. Dave

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    1. Dave, I would think that getting any work done at the Priory at all would be a struggle on some fine autumn days, with all the wonderful things to soak in there. (Metaphorically speaking. I don't mean the pond/duckweed.)
      The gnatcatchers are some of my new favorites--they're just so very small and round and chipper!

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  8. I know exactly what you mean. I will see some wild creature in the garden and stop...be still...almost hold my breath. I want to savor the moment. I have had a hummingbird come right up to my t-shirt because it was red. Oh! What a moment!

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    1. Michelle, I usually love taking photos, but sometimes they just get in the way of that ability to savor that you're talking about and just let a moment be awe-inspiring. Hummingbird experiences like that are priceless!

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  9. What a lovely image you describe of the fallen petal on the hummingbird's head...and how nice that you were there and still enough to witness it.

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    1. The petal was so incredibly charming--just delightful to see.

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  10. hope you are just busy with RL, or on holiday, recouping your strength??

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    1. Diana, thank you again for asking!

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  11. Hi Stacy, that's brilliant, so lovely to read. I belong to the group that tries to concentrate nature more than it may do naturally, thereby making up for a lack elsewhere. Letting the plants get on with it is my style for the most part. A natural garden is an advertisement in itself and doesn't stay wildlife free for long. Feeders just speed up the process.

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    1. Thank you, Sunil. I'd love to read a study some time on the long-term impact of urban gardens. Are we isolated little islands of nature or do all the small gardens add up enough to create an actual ecosystem? I think your garden is a kind of ultra-concentrated nature!

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