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Beauty and Terror on the Wing


The great poets and artists--the ones who see beauty plain, unmediated by reason and who furthermore, mercilessly show it to the rest of us if we give them half a chance--tend to come up with the idea that beauty is the beginning of terror. The reasons for this are not hard to understand. One could even define a genuinely beautiful thing (as opposed to a merely pretty or cute one) as something that, once lost, strikes genuine terror in the human soul.

Most animals can be made to look merely cute. In fact, I sometimes think that the plethora of cute pictures of kittens and puppies is a kind of buffer zone that protects some of us from being confronted too directly and too often with their full beauty. But there is one creature who seems to resist the cowardly human impulse to reduce beauty to the merely pretty, and that is the hummingbird. I doubt that there is a resident of California unobservant enough to have escaped at least a glimpse of the terrible swiftness and directness of the beauty of hummingbirds.

Everyone I know in California has at least one hummingbird story. Mine is that

when I was younger and dumber than I am now, I had a friend, Wes Weathers, who was writing a dissertation at UCLA on some particularly gruesome and scientific aspect of hummingbirds. Weathers was ambitious, with plans to become a "hardcore" scientist. His research entailed his having a lot of hummingbird corpses, so he went hummingbird hunting, and I sometimes went with him. Once we were standing in one of Southern California's canyons, and Weathers had his BB gun fixed on a hummingbird of a variety that he needed more specimens of. He was taking a long time to aim and fire.

Suddenly he lowered the gun. "You can't shoot a critter who puts on a display like that," he said.

Weathers went on, by the way, to become a hard-core scientist. But these days he doesn't hunt hummingbirds. Among the things his reputation rests upon is a technique he devised using a centrifuge to study the metabolism of free-ranging animals without harming them.

I was reminded of him the other day when I heard Colin Campbell's hummingbird stories. Campbell is now a reporter for a New York newspaper, but he wasn't always, and for a time he lived in a cabin in California. Once he walked into his cabin to find a hummingbird frantically trying to escape. He threw a blanket over the bird and carried it outdoors. The bird played dead as soon as the blanket covered it, and it continued to play dead in his hand. Until, with a straight suddenness that only an observer of hummingbirds could believe, the bird darted to the very top of a tree. "Its flight was so beautiful I was frightened," Campbell said.

Another time, he came home to find a dead hummingbird on his desk. This time, he thought to himself, there would not be any of those clashes between feathers and air to scare him. He decided to pluck a few of the bird's feathers before disposing of the tiny corpse. He pulled one out, and then another, and then a third and fourth. As he pulled the fourth feather, the bird fell apart on the desk and turned out to be completely filled with maggots. Campbell said that he is not sure which moment was more awful--the perfect flight of the first bird from hand to tree, or the vision forced upon him by the second. He does know that the only comparably terrifying experience he has had was when, as a reporter on some awfulness in Lebanon or Southeast Asia, he came upon a pile of human bodies in the same decomposed state.

I remembered that day, now two decades ago, when I first saw hummingbirds with an unmediated eye. It was a hot August day, but I felt lost in the icy knowledge of beauty and said so to Wes Weathers. He said: "That's what hummingbirds are for--so we can know beauty."

I thought then and sometimes think now that it is a good thing that hummingbirds are tiny and swift, so that we only see them for seconds at a time. But I wish they would reveal themselves more mercilessly to the statesmen who give the orders that result in piles of human bodies.


Good Riddance

Q: \o7 Could you please pass on the following advice to your readers who are having problems with fleas?

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