Not a ruby-throated, but close enough. John James Audubon, Mango Hummingbird, Detail of Plate 184 of Birds of America. Click image for a nice high-resolution version of the whole thing
OUTER SPACE is still out there I suppose, but my personal cosmos has really contracted since Dad died. These days my thoughts are on the birds in our yard. Last Thursday marked three months since I’ve seen Dad or heard him speak or hugged him. The birds help.
I want to call him every time I see something noteworthy. He was an always-ready audience. He loved hearing about the never-ending mockingbird-versus-crow battles, and the Cooper’s hawk, and the barred owl right there on the fence in broad daylight. He would listen. He would ask questions. He would tell me a bird story of his own.
If I could talk to him today this is what I would tell him.
Two days ago I was in our glassed-in back porch drinking coffee and watching the show. It was a surprisingly cool morning. Two or three chipmunks were foraging for safflower seeds, birds were at the feeders, and, up the hill at the treeline, about 12 feet above the ground, two bonehead squirrels were somehow balanced at the tips of long holly branches. I don’t know how they were doing it. They looked too heavy for those thin branches and I was waiting for them to slip and bust it on the grass, but they didn’t. They were really working on something, I couldn’t tell what.
The squirrels had been doing their weird balancing act for about ten minutes when they vanished immediately and simultaneously. At the same instant the chipmunks scattered and the birds exploded off the feeders. Before this bizarre yard-wide disappearing act could even register, an adult red-shouldered hawk banked close around the porch and over the house. The hawk’s back was to me as it turned and I was granted a perfectly clear (if brief) view of its fully outspread wings and tail from above — a rare sight. The porch’s sliding door to the yard was open but I heard nothing at all as the hawk sliced the air about eight feet from where I sat.
Kristen and I were at the kitchen table. We had just walked home from the bus stop. I was doing some work and she was finishing up her purple popsicle. The glass doors that open to our porch and back yard were behind me but she had a clear view out through them. A curious look crossed her face. She said, Dad, what kind of bird is yellow? I turned around quickly but alas: no yellow bird. It had flown away just as she was asking the question. I went outside and looked around: no yellow bird. Was it little like a finch or big like a thrasher? I asked. Little, she said. Goldfinch, I said.
Later I was passing through our bedroom and I saw a brilliant yellow blur just outside our bay window. I went out front and scanned the trees: again no soap. Still I will count it as my first goldfinch sighting of the season, and earlier than usual. These are migratory critters, and Atlanta is on the southern end of their range. They’ll be around until spring. Seeing them in August is extra-fine because they’ve not yet lost their summer incandescence. By November their feathers will have faded considerably.
The goldfinch was a reminder of the passage of time. Dad loved the fall.
Every time I go to Intown Ace for screws or birdseed or light bulbs I think to myself, Paul, just do it. Commit. Take a step off the cliff and buy a hummingbird feeder already.
For over a year I resisted. I’d tell myself to just spend the $15 and get it over with, but I never did it. It was some kind of weird control game or something. Maybe some psychologist out there can tell me what that was about.
Anyway, about three weeks ago I walked into the store, turned left, entered Bird Nerd Central, grabbed a bright red hummer feeder, and paid for it and everything. I got a large one, two cups, because that’s what commitment looks like.
I took it home and called Mom. I asked her what the water-to-sugar ratio should be. She told me and added: They don’t take very much. You may not want to put too much out there. Maybe one cup to start. But I was in free fall. Screw that, I thought, and filled that sucker all the way up, hung it on the shepherd’s hook in our back yard, and waited.
And BAZINGA! Within 24 hours there was a near-constant stream of ruby-throated hummingbirds hovering about the feeder. I was shocked at how many there were, often two or three at a time. Pretty much all day long, filling up their tiny tanks. They burned through the two cups in ten days.
Curtis is a friend of mine who cares about stuff like this. So I called him up to tell him about the goldfinch. I also mentioned the hummers and he said, Yeah, they’re getting ready for their trip to Belize. I thought he was kidding, but no. They’re really about to go. In fact, they’re already going. In a few weeks they will have disappeared from Georgia until March.
Turns out I bought my feeder just in time for the Great Sugar Intake of 2016. They really are filling their tanks. Most of the little buzzers will go along the Texas coast and into Mexico and down into southern Central America, but it is believed that some of them ACTUALLY FLY ACROSS THE GULF OF MEXICO. Whether or not they do this, however, they certainly could do it: it was recently discovered that a fully-loaded red-throat can go 1200 miles NONSTOP.
Also: they migrate alone, not in charms, which means first-timers don’t follow adults. How does a fresh hummer know when to leave? It’s not certain, but maybe it’s the shortening of the days. How a few minutes less sunlight per day triggers a solitary hummingbird’s instinct to fly more than a thousand miles around the Gulf of Mexico — when that bird has never, not even once, left the neighborhood — is beyond me. And how do they know where to go without others to follow? I don’t know. I’m not sure if anyone does.
All of this migration business was news to me, and I wonder if Dad knew about it. I’m thinking maybe he did.
Click on the image above to hear the podcast
Hi friends. A month or so ago I chatted with David Dault at Things Not Seen about religion and science and life and the universe and everything. Which includes my book. Last week I was in Chicago and was able to meet David and his wife Kira face-to-face. We had a delightful time getting to know each other and eating very good Indian food.
I hope you enjoy our discussion, which touches on Glenn Beck, dinosaur urine, still small voices, Galileo, self-obsession, and asks the perennial questions: How does God relate to bacteria? And what would a truly cosmic liturgy look like?
Here’s the podcast.
The ark seems to float on a sea of creationists in this image from Ark Encounter’s ribbon cutting ceremony. Jim Lo Scalzo
I hoped it wouldn’t happen.
I even secretly thought it wouldn’t happen. But I underestimated the tenacity of Ken Ham’s posse and the generosity and sheer numbers of garden-variety creationists.
Tomorrow, after a dozen years; multiple court battles; the Great Recession; and outcries from educators, lawmakers, chamber-of-commerce types, scientists, Christians, and Kentucky taxpayers, the $100-million Ark Encounter will open its doors to the public.
It is, according to the website, a “one-of-a-kind historically themed attraction” centered on a full-scale replica of Noah’s big boat. There are animatronic dinosaurs on board, zip lines, a zoo (no live dinos, sorry), and other fun activities for the family. But the real point is serious: the promotion of biblical literalism.
Those who built the Ark Park believe the cosmos and everything in it is about 6,000 years old, that Adam and Eve actually walked the earth as the first people that many years ago, that evolution and pretty much all mainstream science is a lie, that there was a global flood that produced all fossils and formed the Grand Canyon, that dinosaurs were on board an actual 510-foot-long boat made entirely of wood, etc.
Passing these beliefs down to the next generation is what the Ark Park is really about.
It is also about answers. After all, those who take the Noah story as a historical-factual account will have lots of questions that would never occur to someone (like me) who does not read Genesis this way. Therefore questions like How did Noah fit all the animals on board? and How did Noah feed and care for all the animals? and How did Noah build the ark? are answered by exhibits inside the ark. The basic idea is that, when people see this thing and get the answers, they’ll be convinced of the literal nature of the story found in Genesis 6-9 and thus (I suppose) of the rest of the Bible.
Proof by spectacle, I guess you could call it.
It’s for the kids: dinos on the ark. John Minchillo / AP
The folly is considerable. What most depresses me tonight is this: Neither the theology nor the science of the Ark Park is even partially sufficient to the mystery before which we all stand. The park itself is manufactured out of anti-wonder. It gives dead-end answers to questions that really matter, it actively discourages creativity, is fearful of complexity and uncertainty, and runs fast in every anti-intellectual direction imaginable.
The God of the Ark Park is a lunatic con artist, having very recently created a cosmos delicately rigged to appear 13.8 billion years old (why?). The Bible of the Ark Park is as dull and two-dimensional as the paper it’s printed on. The science of the Ark Park is not science at all; it is a lie wrapped in science-y language written and spoken to deceive the unknowing.
As a father, I am saddened tonight to think of all those kids who will never learn about the wonders of real science and real theology and real biblical studies. These are entire worlds of thought and creativity and imagination that will be forever closed to the majority of the children whose parents take them to this travesty.
Here’s the one single thing Ham and his posse got completely right: When one is trying to get the attention of 10-year-olds, it is very hard to compete against electronic dinosaurs on a 500-foot-long boat built by God.
John James Audubon, American Crow, Plate 156 of Birds of America
About an hour before Dad died I glanced out of his bedroom window and saw a crow. It was perched in a familiar poplar right at eye level and only a few yards away. I stopped to look at it. After a few seconds it spread its long black wings and rowed away in silence.
I didn’t need a crow to tell me what was going to happen. Dad was in the sunroom in his hospice bed. The family had gathered and were prepared. So the avian foreshadow was gratuitous. Still, the literary quality of the moment was not lost on me.
It might have been. Before the poetry had time to fully register, my rational mind informed me this crow could not be special. I grew up in the shade of that poplar and had seen many crows in and around it over nearly five decades of life. It was one crow sighting of dozens, maybe hundreds, in that very place.
But reason had no real chance that evening. The world was growing still, the sun was setting, and things seemed faintly lit from within. Everything had taken on an illumined and — dare I say it? — holy quality, including the crow.
The low-angled light reflected off its highly-organized rows of wing feathers. The long black beak was held slightly open, as if the bird were about to speak. The eyes were intelligent and hard. Before it set itself in motion the creature looked as if had been machined out of impossibly fine purple-black metal.
An anonymous sixth-century Syrian monk we know as Dionysius once described God as a “brilliant darkness.” This is an apt description of that crow, and it makes me wonder.
Ever since that day I have worn an arm band that says “Imagine Moving Forward.” I am trying to do that, but after almost eight weeks without Dad my analytical mind is back to its annoying habit of reducing my more poetic — and hopeful — thoughts to nearly nothing.
So I find myself wondering: Is it possible to move forward believing that God, who we claim called light from the void, really does shine in dark things? That doing such is precisely the divine signature? More than that: that on that day God took the form of the darkest of birds, a living shadow, just to pay me a visit and remind me that such a thing is possible?
It seems it would be good to believe that, but I can’t picture myself believing it for the rest of my life, however long that might be. That’s altogether too much moving forward to imagine. I don’t even think I can believe it for 24 hours. But maybe I can imagine living the next 24 hours as if I believe it. Yes, that I can do.
That I can do.