The Hummingbird, The Sheep, and The Whale

I’m hearing many people extol nature these days, perhaps worried that it will go away. Been worried about that for some time now, haven’t we? Still hasn’t happened. In case you’re wondering, I’m not a denier of climate change, much less an unsympathetic observer of wildfires, floods, or melting icebergs; nor am I gifted with an insight into the resilience or not of the hummingbird, the sheep, or the whale, to name just three creatures that pique my interest, fancifully if not with scientific rigor. But this much I do know: their most difficult or curious challenges have been with them for ages, long before we started tampering with air quality or the state of oceans.

Take the hummingbird: beats its wings I-don’t-know-how-many-times a second just to maintain its flight. Had its reasons for evolving this way, I’m sure. Funny, but this singular thought stirs two semi-relevant others: first, an association to a Monty Python film clip in which bored knights atop a castle debate the “air speed velocity” of a native Mercia swallow; second, and for a split-second, that it might have seemed necessary for me to research precisely how fast a hummingbird beats its wings, just to prove that I have done some homework. I have scientific friends. I know pedantic people who—were I to read this out loud—would immediately poke their fingers in the air because they know the answer to my oh-so-important question. But this is a blog essay, not an academic thesis, so on I go with fanciful wonderings, because like the hummingbird I have no time to lose: how do hummingbirds mate? Assuming they must be still, or relatively un-frenetic in their amorous movements, how long can they be this way before they must get going, go eat something, and then resume their tenacious flight? Doesn’t sound romantic, does it? Wouldn’t make for a tender poem of love. Anyway, the hummingbird’s relentless vigor is surely admired by many, though we seem to overlook what’s surely annoying about them. Keep still! Someone must be saying…sometimes. But their feverish ways fit the inclinations of some I could mention: hello, is anyone there? Are we going to start? Come on? Hello?


Next, what do other animals teach us with their seeming habits; their apparent limitations or skills? What do they illustrate about patience, or about trust? About intelligence. And how have we incorporated our attitudes into the language that represents them? Regarding sheep: we don’t seem to give them much credit. No, they’re not at the top of the esteem chart, these gentle, furry, yet dim, uninteresting creatures. It isn’t nice what we project onto sheep, especially what they’ve given us, passively or not, in terms of clothing, and at times on the dinner table. Given the disregard we aim at the wild, and the distance we keep from its most uncooperative of natives (you know, sharks, bears, or hawks), you’d think we’d be a little forebearing towards those who have been useful, at least. But it says something about us that we can’t help holding in contempt the too-easily defeated, the too-cooperative. The compliant. The non-individualist. The stupid. Yes, we observe that they can’t govern themselves; that they require an actual breed of dog to coral them in groups lest they wander from home or off a cliff. Wait…do we need anything like that? Seems like the sheep metaphor is more prominently applied to ourselves than that of the hummingbird. Our language mechanics betray this attitude, for we don’t bother distinguishing between sheep in the singular (a sheep), versus sheep in the plural. They’re just sheep.

And what of whales? Well, talk about metaphors, whales go way back in our mythology. Think of Jonah and the Whale, in which the creature (once deemed a fish) is a psychic black hole; a deep well of suffering from which the human being later emerges, redemptive—grown up from trauma, and promising to do God’s bidding. In nineteenth century literature, the sperm whale was the Frankenstein of the oceans, as immortalized in Melville’s Moby Dick. In that classic, the whale is a man-eating, man-hating monster who inspires obsessive revenge-seeking. Did the great beasts of the sea really hate us? Did they resent us hunting them for things like—what was it?—lamp oil? In the twentieth century, we stopped hunting whales, thinking them more endangered than endangering, on the whole. Well, some stopped hunting them. Not the Japanese, I guess. We transferred our need to fear and hate something in the ocean to the dreaded great white shark. This ancient fear of Leviathan appeared to peak in 1975 with the release of Jaws, a cinematic rip-off of Moby Dick, even if it is a great movie. Meanwhile, the whale, even of the killer variety, became the gentle giant of the ocean, stirring awe, not so much fear. Whales have an aesthetic streak, so we like their ambient songs, how they swim gracefully; their mammalian need for the surface so they can blow air. We might even think them efficient, intelligent diners. Conjure, for example, the way a whale plows into a school of fish, aiming at a dense center so as to gulp as much feed as possible. A whale is not like an average predator. The beast does not lurk on the perimeter, waiting for a weakened runt to fall behind, get separated from a pack. The whale might be like some of us. Disdainful of the compliant, of the mainstream center, the whale strikes at the heart of community.

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