Brain Pickings

Between Science and Magic: How Hummingbirds Hover at the Edge of the Possible

How a tiny creature faster than the Space Shuttle balances the impossible equation of extreme fragility and superhuman strength.

Between Science and Magic: How Hummingbirds Hover at the Edge of the Possible

Frida Kahlo painted a hummingbird into her fiercest self-portrait. Technology historian Steven Johnson drew on hummingbirds as the perfect metaphor for revolutionary innovation. Walt Whitman found great joy and solace in watching a hummingbird “coming and going, daintily balancing and shimmering about,” as he was learning anew how to balance a body coming and going in the world after his paralytic stroke. For poet and gardener Ross Gay, “the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia,” is indispensable to the “exercise in supreme attentiveness” that gardening offers.

Essential as pollinators and essential as muses to poets, hummingbirds animate every indigenous spiritual mythology of their native habitats and are sold as wearable trinkets on Etsy, to be worn as symbols — of joy, of levity, of magic — by modern secular humans across every imaginable habitat on our improbable planet.

Belted Hermit and Bishop Hermit Hummingbirds by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

There is, indeed, something almost magical to the creaturely reality of the hummingbird — something not supernatural but supranatural, hovering above the ordinary limits of what biology and physics conspire to render possible.

As if the evolution of ordinary bird flight weren’t miracle enough — scales transfigured into feathers, jaws transfigured into beaks, arms transfigured into wings — the hummingbird, like no other bird among the thousands of known avian species, can fly backward and upside-down, and can hover. It is hovering that most defiantly subverts the standard physics of bird flight: head practically still as the tiny turbine of feather and bone suspends the body mid-air — not by flapping up and down, as wings do in ordinary bird flight, but by swiveling rapidly along the invisible curvature of an infinity symbol. Millions of living, breathing gravity-defying space stations, right here on Earth, capable of slicing through the atmosphere at 385 body-lengths per second — faster than a falcon, faster than the Space Shuttle itself.

Pale-bellied Hermit Hummingbird by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

That supranatural marvel of nature is what Sy Montgomery — the naturalist who so memorably celebrated the otherworldly marvel of the octopus — celebrates in The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder, Beauty, and Renewal on Wings (public library). She writes:

Alone among the world’s ten thousand avian species, only those in the hummingbird family, Trochilidae, can hover in midair. For centuries, nobody knew how they did it. They were considered pure magic.


Even the scientists succumbed to hummingbirds’ intoxicating mysteries: they classified them in an order called Apodiformes, which means “without feet” — for it was believed (incorrectly) for many years that a hummingbird had no need for feet. It was thought that no hummingbird ever perched, accounting in part for its sun-washed brilliance: as the comte de Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, wrote in his 1775 Histoire naturelle, “The emerald, the ruby, and the topaz glitter in its garb, which is never soiled with the dust of the earth.”

Ruby-topaz Hummingbird by William Swainson, 1841. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

Science, being the supreme human implement of self-correction, eventually caught up to the reality of the hummingbird’s wispy feet, then unpeeled a thousand subtler and more astonishing realities about the extraordinary feats of which this flying jewel is capable. Montgomery writes:

Hummingbirds are the lightest birds in the sky. Of their roughly 240 species, all confined to the Western Hemisphere, the largest, an Andean “giant,” is only eight inches long; the smallest, the bee hummingbird of Cuba, is just over two inches long and weighs a single gram.

Delicacy is the trade-off that hummingbirds have made for their unrivaled powers of flight. Alone among birds, they can hover, fly backward, even fly upside down. For such small birds their speed is astonishing: in his courtship display to impress a female, a male Allen’s hummingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second — and pulling out of his plunge, he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity. Adjusted for body length, the Allen’s is the fastest bird in the world.

Pale-tailed Barbthroat Hummingbird by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

Since what we call magic is the eternal instinct of the human mind to mistake the boundaries of its understanding for the boundaries of reality, it is hardly a surprise that hummingbird flight was seen as magic for centuries; since science is the best tool we have for expanding the boundaries of our understanding, it wasn’t until the invention of photography and the invention of the stroboscope in the 1830s that the blur of the hummingbird hover was revealed to be wings beating at sixty times per second. The camera captured what was far too rapid for the human eye to register, liberating the human mind to probe the physics beneath the phantasm. Montgomery observes:

Hummingbirds are less flesh than fairies. They are little more than bubbles fringed with iridescent feathers — air wrapped in light. No wonder even experts who are experienced with other birds are intimidated by this fragility.

Rucker’s Hermit Hummingbird by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

This fragility is why tender armies of humans have taken it upon themselves to help hummingbirds survive the gauntlet of an increasingly perilous world. The book is as much a love letter to these uncommon feathered creatures — by a human who learned everything she knows about how to be a good creature from a lifetime of working with non-human animals — as it is a love letter to the uncommon human animals toiling as hummingbird rehabilitators in kitchens and backyards, each “a Mother Teresa, a Saint George, a little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike — desperately trying to fend off the hordes of monstrous perils facing these tiniest of all birds.” Montgomery quotes one such hero — a Pennsylvanian named Mary Birney:

Their feet are like thread… Touching them damages their feathers. Yes, they are made of air — air and a humongous heart. That’s all they are. It floors me I’m able to work with them.

Grey-chinned Hermit Hummingbird by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

And yet for all their fragility, hummingbirds are endowed with strength that, when adjusted for bodyweight, would render its human analogue superhuman. Montgomery details the physiology and physics of their infinity-symbol hover wingbeat:

The upstroke as well as downstroke require enormous strength; every stroke is a power stroke. Like insects and helicopters, hummingbirds can fly backward by slanting the angle of the wings; they can fly upside down by spreading the tail to lead the body into a backward somersault. Hovering becomes so natural to a hummingbird that a mother who wants to turn in her nest does it by lifting straight up into the air, twirling, then coming back down. A hummer can stay suspended in the air for up to an hour.

Hummingbirds are specially equipped to perform these feats. In most birds, 15 to 25 percent of the body is given over to flying muscles. In a hummingbird’s body, flight muscles account for 35 percent. An enormous heart constitutes up to 2.5 percent of its body weight — the largest per body weight of all vertebrates. At rest, the hummingbird pumps blood at a rate fifteen times as fast as that of a resting ostrich, and that blood is exceptionally rich in oxygen-carrying hemoglobin.

Green-tailed Hummingbird by William Swainson, 1841. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

Churning beneath these feats of vigor is a Herculean metabolism that demands a greater volume of food per bodyweight than any other vertebrate. If a human were to sustain the activity level of a hummingbird, they would have to consume 155,000 calories per day — nearly 80 times what the United States government recommends for an average adult — and would ultimately self-combust as their body temperature rises to 370 degrees Celsius, or around 700 Fahrenheit. Montgomery furthers the marvelous mathematics of equivalency:

To fuel the furious pace of its life — even resting, it breathes 250 times a minute, and its heart pounds at five hundred beats per minute — a hummer must daily visit fifteen hundred flowers and eat six hundred to seven hundred insects. If the nectar alone were converted to its human equivalent, that would be fifteen gallons a day.

Mango Hummingbird (young) by William Swainson, 1841. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)
Mango Hummingbird by William Swainson, 1841. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

At its large heart, this slender book — like all of Montgomery’s books, composed in the tradition of Rachel Carson — is as much a love letter to a particular creature as a clarion call to our entire ecological conscience: Hummingbirds occupy that singularly ominous Venn diagram between the pollinators whose populations are collapsing by the minute and the 2.8 billion birds that have vanished from the North American sky since the founding of Earth Day half a century ago. With her spare poetics, Montgomery offers an admonition radiating an invitation:

Today, perhaps more than ever before, we thirst for community; we hanker for transformation; we long to reconnect with the incandescence of life. We need to make those inner journeys. But what if there are no bees or butterflies or hummingbirds to accompany us? It’s a growing possibility.

Rufous-breasted Hermit Hummingbird by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

Meanwhile, we have The Hummingbirds’ Gift to widen us with wonder at the seeming impossibility of these fragile, fierce marvels of nature — and to render us wondersmitten with the hope that if individual humans are capable of bring individual hummingbirds back to life from the brink of death, then perhaps our entire species is capable of rehabilitating an entire planet; perhaps we are capable of a great deal more care and tenderness than we realize toward the myriad marvelous creatures with whom we share the ultimate cosmic miracle of life, this staggering improbability that is — somehow, somehow — possible.


Keith Haring on Creativity, Empathy, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“The need to separate ourselves and connect ourselves to our environment (world) is a primary need of all human beings.”

Keith Haring on Creativity, Empathy, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” artist Egon Schiele wrote in contemplating why visionaries tend to come from the minority. Artists are so often those whom society paints as other by some hue of identity and belonging, and yet they are also the ones who, in seeing how and what most people don’t see, teach us what it takes to be ourselves, what it feels like to be someone other than ourselves, and what it means to be a human being.

Iris Murdoch found in this the ultimate evidence of why art is essential for democracy; in it, James Baldwin recognized the titanic dual task of the artist as society’s essential destabilizing force and its “emotional or spiritual historian,” whose job it is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

We make art with everything we are, the doom and the glory of it. We make art to know ourselves, to locate ourselves in the web of being, to make ourselves more alive. We make art that, at its best, helps other people locate themselves and live.

All artists know this and feel this, consciously or not, but few have contemplated that knowledge more deeply and articulated it more beautifully than Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990), whose largehearted art has touched countless lives and helped generations of humans — this one included — live.

Keith Haring by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

Haring explores this question with uncommon thoughtfulness and tenderness throughout his diary, posthumously published as Keith Haring Journals (public library) — the wondrous cathedral of creative vitality rising at the intersection of the intimate and the universal that gave us Haring’s impassioned insistence on the love of life even in the face of death.

In the early autumn of 1978, having just left Pittsburgh to begin his brave new life as an artist in New York City, the twenty-year-old Haring finds himself sitting in Washington Square Park — a microcosm of the city’s vibrant polyphony of life. He takes out his journal and begins composing a long stream-of-consciousness meditation on art and life, at the heart of which is the sentiment that would come to define his creative ethos:

No two human beings ever experience two sensations, experiences, feelings, or thoughts identically.


I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.

Haring would devote the remainder of his short life to using art as a celebration of difference and an empathic bridge for coming as close as we can ever come to the way a consciousness other than our own is experiencing reality.

Keith Haring. Untitled, 1978, from Keith Haring Journals.

In an entry penned years later, not yet knowing his own consciousness is soon to meet its untimely end, he revisits the question of the ultimate function of art in human life — life inextricable from the larger web of life, the destructive unweaving of which had colored Haring’s childhood as the modern environmental movement was coming awake:

“Art”… is at the very basis of human existence. The need to separate ourselves and connect ourselves to our environment (world) is a primary need of all human beings.

Art becomes the way we define our existence as human beings. This has a perverse air to it, I admit. The very idea that we are so different from other beings (animals) and things (rocks, trees, air, water) is, I think, a great misconception, but if understood is not necessarily evil. We know that “humans” determine the future of this planet. We have the power to destroy and create. We, after all is said and done, are the perpetrators of the destruction of the Earth we inhabit. No matter how slowly this destruction is occurring, no matter how “natural” this de-composition is, we are the harborers of this change.

And yet even against this backdrop, Haring defies the easy defeatism of painting our species and our civilization as purely evil, of classing human nature as an antagonist of nature rather than its function and functionary, just as replete with the capacity for destruction as with the capacity for beauty — like nature itself. What dignifies us, what redeems us, what saves us from ourselves, is the animating impulse of art. He writes:

We are human and we “understand” beauty.

Complement with Virginia Woolf’s exquisite epiphany about what it means to be an artist and the childhood encounter in which Pablo Neruda found the ultimate metaphor for why we make art, then revisit Drawing on Walls — poet Matthew Burgess and muralist Josh Cochran’s picture-book biography of Haring, inspired by his altogether ravishing journals.


Tracing the Roots of the Big Apple: The Mysterious Origins of the World’s Most Famous City Moniker

A working theory of grafting Eden.

Tracing the Roots of the Big Apple: The Mysterious Origins of the World’s Most Famous City Moniker

On May 3, 1921, John J. Fitz Gerald — a sports journalist for the New York Morning Telegraph reporting on the horse-racing circuit — suddenly began referring to results from New York City as news from “the big apple.” He soon titled his entire column “Around the Big Apple,” extolling the Big Apple as “the dream of every lad that had ever thrown a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen.” Eventually, people began wondering why he had so nicknamed their city.

Five years after he first began using the term, Fitz Gerald half-answered.

Several years earlier, traveling to New Orleans for a race, he had overheard two African American stable hands discussing the horses in their respective care and where they were headed next. One of the young men told the other, in a “bright and snappy” quip, that the horse was going to “the big apple.” Fitz Gerald, knowing that the horse was in fact headed to New York City, seized on the term without asking where it came from — something about it just felt like the right poetic image for the grandeur and lushness of life in his hometown.

He died without ever saying anything else about it, having seeded into the urban dictionary the single most powerful and recognizable botanical metaphor in popular culture.

A century after the inception of the term, while curating and hosting an apple-tree planting ceremony at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, I found myself wondering what the metaphor was actually for.

Poets Marissa Davis (left) and Marie Howe at the planting ceremony for artist Sam Van Aken’s Tree of 40 Fruit: New York Apples. Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, October 2020. Photograph by Walter Wlodarczyk.

Immersed in the world of apples — apples as botany, apples as poetry, apples as cultural symbology — my historical voracity and scholarly stubbornness grew restless with the unsolved mystery of why the two men in New Orleans had referred to the city that way in the first place. It is a term now familiar the world over, yet opaque even to New Yorkers, most of whom either know nothing about the origin at all or know one of the several circulated origin myths since debunked. The scholar Barry Popik has done most of this debunking, but his considerable work on the history of the moniker focuses more on how the term bloomed into popular culture after Fitz Gerald popularized it. I was interested in the roots, predating Fitz Gerald and predating even the young men from whom he had heard it.

After extensive trawling of archival newspapers, out-of-print books, and oral histories, I emerged with a working theory.

The Red Must Apple from an 1811 guide to the finest apple varieties. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In the early nineteenth century, as newspapers became the first truly mass medium, they quickly bent under the same market forces that warp today’s online journalism and social media — forces they themselves engineered with the formative model of trading an audience for advertising revenue, with attention as the currency. Tempted to grow their audience, newspapers increasingly sacrificed substance and integrity at the altar of scale, inventing what we now call “clickbait” — sensational titles designed to grab the reader’s most primal attention, hovering over mediocre stories of moderate entertainment value and no lasting intellectual or emotional reward.

There were then, as there are now, several primary categories of clickbait. Let us call one of them Big Things.

With the Industrial Revolution still perfecting its human-made Big Things, news of the biggest bridge yet and the deepest oil well yet and the tallest building yet made regular headlines. But America was still primarily an agricultural nation — such industrial feats so scintillated precisely because they were few and far between, isolated to the major cities. Throughout the vast sweep of farmland that was the rest of the country, farmers could not compete with bridges and buildings. But they could make their own claims to the Big Things category with human-assisted feats of nature, taking especial pride in fruits, vegetables, and animals that grew to staggering size under their care. (The notion of genetics, and therefore of mutation, was still foreign — size was seen less as a chance-stroke of nature than as a metric of farming acumen.)

Of those, exceptionally big apples were the most popular news item.

Page from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1848.

By the 1850s, a new term had emerged: “to wager a big apple,” or “to bet a big apple” — which meant to risk your best, the measure of your skill and character, taking a chance on something promising but uncertain.

In an era before Abraham Lincoln wagered his own biggest apple on the Emancipation Proclamation, it was an act of tremendous courage for a black person in the South to travel North in pursuit of their freedom and their basic human rights. To do this, people risked everything they had. Many lost everything they had — including their lives. New York City, with its lively liberal culture and its political umbilical cord to somewhat more egalitarian Europe still uncut, appeared as a particularly fertile garden for personal liberation and self-actualization — not only for fugitive slaves, but for anyone who came from very little and dared dream of very much: immigrants, entrepreneurs, women interested in soaring beyond the domestic sphere, dissenters against dogma and convention along every axis of identity and equality. It is where Frederick Douglass journeyed to begin his free life — a life that reshaped his country’s political conscience — and where Margaret Fuller journeyed to lay the foundation of modern feminism.

Feminist remapping of the New York City subway system from Nonstop Metropolis by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly Shapiro.

It is where Kahlil Gibran journeyed to find his voice as a poet, painter, and philosopher, trading his native Lebanon for this strange and wondrous city where one is bound to “gaze with a thousand eyes and listen with a thousand ears all through the day,” the place that a generation later staggered Italo Calvino as “the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day,” the place in which another generation later Zadie Smith located the testing ground of the American dream.

In the generations since the term was coined, for those of us coming from other countries and cultures, with identities that are in any way other, escaping dictatorships or poverty or violent homes, or simply leaving behind lives too small for our dreams, beginning a new life in New York City has remained a wager of the biggest existential apple.

Photograph by Bill Hayes from How New York Breaks Your Heart

For a broader diameter of the cultural Venn diagram of New York and apples, savor some poetry, storytelling, and music from the planting ceremony for artist Sam Van Aken’s symphonic living sculpture Tree of 40 Fruit: New York Apples, freely available to any body in any city on Pioneer Works’ culturally lush online journal The Broadcast.


Waking Up: David Whyte on the Power of Poetry and Silence as Portal to Presence

“The object in meditation and all of our contemplative disciplines is silence… in order for you to perceive something other than yourself… Poetry is the verbal art-form by which we can actually create silence.”

Waking Up: David Whyte on the Power of Poetry and Silence as Portal to Presence

Poetry interrupts the momentum of story, unweaves the narrative thread with which we cocoon our inner worlds. A single poetic image can lift us from the plane of our storied worldview toward the gasp of a whole new vista, where in the spacious silence of the unimagined we imagine ourselves afresh.

For Adrienne Rich, poetry was a tool to “break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire”; for Audre Lorde, a lens for focusing “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives”; for Shelley, a tonic that “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being”; for Elizabeth Alexander, a fulcrum for raising the fundamental human question that so easily falls by distraction, indifference, and confusion: “And are we not of interest to each other?”

Sometimes — not often — prose can do that, prose that carries the spirit of poetry, the spirit that opens up rather than pins down the concepts language conveys.

Among the rare travelers between these twin worlds is the Irish-English poet and philosopher David Whyte.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Drawing on his superb collection of short semantic-lyrical essays, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library), he has created a series of poetry-driven guided broadenings of perspective for neuroscientist Sam Harris’s mighty contemplative toolkit Waking Up.

In his short introductory conversation with Sam, David reflects:

The object in meditation and all of our contemplative disciplines is silence. But… that silence is in order for you to perceive something other than yourself — what you’ve arranged as yourself to actually perceive this frontier between what you call your self and what you call other than your self, whether that’s a person or a landscape.

Echoing Susan Sontag’s observation that silence is a form of spirituality and a form of speech, he considers poetry as a channel for contemplative silence:

One of the greatest arts of poetry is actually to create silence through attentive speech — speech that says something in such a way that it appears as a third frontier between you and the world, and invites you into a deeper and more generous sense of your own identity and the identity of the world… Poetry is the verbal art-form by which we can actually create silence.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by poet Ruth Krauss

His essay on silence in Consolations harmonizes this sentiment:

Silence is frightening, an intimation of the end, the graveyard of fixed identities. Real silence puts any present understanding to shame; orphans us from certainty; leads us beyond the well-known and accepted reality and confronts us with the unknown and previously unacceptable conversation about to break in upon our lives.

And yet, echoing poet-philosopher Wendell Berry’s lovely insistence that in silence and solitude “one’s inner voices become audible [so that] one responds more clearly to other lives,” he adds:

In silence, essence speaks to us of essence itself and asks for a kind of unilateral disarmament, our own essential nature slowly emerging as the defended periphery atomizes and falls apart. As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.


Reality met on its own terms demands absolute presence, and absolute giving away, an ability to live on equal terms with the fleeting and the eternal, the hardly touchable and the fully possible, a full bodily appearance and disappearance, a rested giving in and giving up; another identity braver, more generous and more here than the one looking hungrily for the easy, unearned answer.

Moon at Magome by Hasui Kawase from his contemplative-poetic vintage woodblock prints. (Available as a print.)

Consolations touched me deeply when I first read it several years ago and remains my regular companion through life, as does Waking Up, which has been nothing less than a lifeline this past life-syphoning year.

Complement this strand of contemplation with The Sound of Silence — a lovely Japanese-inspired illustrated serenade to the art of listening to the inner voice amid the noise of modern life — and Kahlil Gibran on silence, solitude, and the courage to know yourself, and then revisit David Whyte’s stunning lyric meditation on walking into the questions of our becoming.


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