the hummingbird and the missing animals


A wet day. The library. Trucks rolling past the window, rattling the walls; big wheels squishing hope.

The rain pouring, racing away down the sterile paving into drains – instead of leaping into the sky with the electric power of photosynthesis. The concrete city was making me feel hungry. And thirsty. And defeated.

It would be fair to say I was in a pretty black mood, which was just when some words leaped out from the back cover of one particular library book:

This book reminds us all that power is not always about size. It is, however, always about commitment.


So was it me? Was I just not committed enough?

Outside the window, another wave of trucks thundered past.

I took Flight of the Hummingbird home with me, and read it in bed that night.

It was – it is – a storybook. The story is ‘a parable for the environment’ and ‘has origins with the Quechan people of South America and the Haida of the North Pacific’. Two Nobel prize-winners – the Dalai Lama and Wangari Mathai, had written essays to accompany it.

This much the cover told me. While fairly informative, it did not mention that I was in for a long night of insomnia, and at this point, you don’t know this either. So first of all, let’s have the bedtime story. It goes like this:

The forest was on fire, and all the animals and birds fled to the forest edge.

Only Dukdukdiya, the little hummingbird, would not abandon the forest.

Dukdukdiya flew quickly to the stream.

She picked up a single drop of water in her beak.

Dukdukdiya flew back and dropped the water on the fire.

She went back and forth, between the stream and the fire, while the animals called out to her warning of the dangers. They were frightened, and couldn’t see what they could do, with the heat and the smoke and the flames. But the little hummingbird was persistent, until:

Finally, the big bear said “Little Dukdukdiya, what are you doing?”

Without stopping, Dukdukdiya looked down at all of the animals.

She said, “I am doing what I can.”

And that was the end of the story.

As I tried to get to sleep, the story bugged me. Parts of it were missing, it seemed to me. I don’t mean ‘what happens next’ was missing – I could see that in the parable style, we are supposed to draw our own conclusions, create our own consequences, ideally in real life. No, I mean that there were pieces missing earlier in the story.

Late into the night I lay there, trying to name the missing parts. I woke early, and found myself naming more.

So I rewrote the story.

Before you read it, I apologise to the original author, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, and to the Quechan people and the Haida people, because what I write here is not the story of their culture, it’s the terrible story of mine.

And most of all I apologise to the animals for the words I’m about to put in their mouths. I am sure they are saying far more sensible things.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

the hummingbird and the missing animals – a story re-told

The forest was on fire.

The animals were fleeing.

The hummingbird flew quickly to the stream. She picked up a single drop of water in her beak, flew back and dropped the water on the fire.

“Get a real job!” growled the wolf.

The hummingbird thought this was rather a low-brow attack which didn’t bear much analysis given the circumstances, so she ignored him and carried on flying.

“Could I interview you?” asked the rabbit. “Your story is so inspiring, I think it could really reach people.”

“Heroics… not the… point…” the hummingbird gasped doubtfully, as a waft of smoke went up her beak.

“This fire is a big problem,” said the elk, “and I’m waiting for the bear to give us clear direction. How can we act without leadership?”

“But in the meantime it’s important to remember that we can all do our bit,” said the moose importantly. “So I am going to sponsor a poster which applauds the actions of the hummingbird.”

“News just in,” said rabbit, “we couldn’t run the Brave Bird Hero story this week, we ran out of space.”

As she flew overhead, the hummingbird glanced down. “But what’s that taking up half of the front page?” she asked.

“An advert for firelighters,” replied the rabbit nonchalantly. The hummingbird sighed and carried on flying.

Once again she picked up a drop from the stream in her beak, and dropped it on the fire. As she flew back towards the stream once again, she could hear that the animals had started a discussion on whether they, too, should do something. But discussions had stalled with a debate as to whether the fire was actually real.

“I inhaled some smoke,” said the frog, “and I didn’t burst into flames, so I have to call into question your analysis.”

“If you cannot predict where the fire will end up, why on earth should we listen to you?” said the beaver.

“It’s not that hot right here,” said the wolf, looking precisely at the centimetre square in front of his toe.

“Look,” said the hummingbird, hovering for a moment. “Even if you cannot predict which way the wind will blow the fire, let alone whether the fire will change the wind, can’t you see the ash on the floor where my nest used to be? Can’t you see that the fox’s tail has been singed?”

“Good point,” said the duck. He flapped into the air, flew to the water, picked up a drop and flew back to let it fall on the flames.

“Ah, so it’s a bird thing,” said the rabbit. “We could do a special quiz feature: How Bird Are You?”

As the hummingbird passed overhead once more, she suddenly looked at the animals clearly. She realised that they were all striking matches and throwing them on to the forest debris near the edge of the fire.

“Friends,” she called out in horror, “what are you doing?”

“I would stop,” said the ant, “but if I do the moose will repossess my home.”

“That’s true,” said the moose, who was picked for this part because ‘antler’ rhymes with ‘banker’.

The fox had also started to collect drops of water, to put on the fire. But his cub turned to the moose, the elk and the bear, and said, “You know, you’ve been striking matches for a lot longer than us, and yet it’s our homes which are being affected. I think you should start paying us not to strike any more matches.”

“Oh for crying out loud,” said the hummingbird. And with her amazing aerodynamic skills she flew down and plucked a match from the elk’s hoof and dropped it into the stream.

“Terrorist!” cried the elk.

“Self-appointed busy-body!” cried the moose.

“God, you are sooooo undemocratic,” said the raccoon, rolling her eyes. “And anyway,” she added, “you could have used your aerodynamic skills to woo the butterfly.”

“How the hell would that have helped?” spluttered the hummingbird.

“The butterfly’s sheer beauty would have persuaded the elk to use recycled matches,” said the raccoon.

The hummingbird barely had time to take apart the flawed logic in these words before the turtle spoke to her pompously: “I’ve examined your recent actions regarding the elk’s matches, and while it’s clear to us that you had the best intentions, unfortunately everyone agrees that you’re guilty of theft, so…”

But the hummingbird didn’t wait to hear the rest. Though she was boiling with rage, she resumed her task. She flew again to the stream to collect another drop in her beak. She soared over the animals, let the drop land on the nearest spark, then flew again to the animals, picked up another of the elk’s matches and dropped it into the water.

There rose a great twittering roar of outrage from the animals, almost drowning out the crackling of the flames.

“Get a net! Get a net!” cried the elk.

“Catch her! Stop her! Get a net!” cried the bear.

“Dammit,” said the moose, “we’re going to have to change the poster, we just can’t align ourselves with creatures who behave this way.”

“We’d just like to say,” said the duck, “that not all birds are like this. The majority of us are very reasonable. We believe that we should be the change we wish to see in the world. The hummingbird is coming from outside making trouble, she’s not representative.”

“Ow!” said the fox as his tail was singed once more.

“No need to panic!” said the coyote, “I’m keeping a very close eye on the activities of the hummingbird. It’s important work, protecting the whole community.”

“It’s vital that we maintain our rate of fire growth,” said the bear busily. “Everyone, back to work with those matches. Ignore the hummingbird, she’s clearly attention-seeking. If she pushes us too far, we’ll stand strong. The coyote can swat her away, or we’ll get out the net – either way that bird has clearly brought it on herself. Keep calm and strike matches!”

“You have to stop!” cried the hummingbird in despair, “If you refuse to see the damage you are doing, must I peck out your eyes?!”

“Aha!” cried the rabbit, “Birds Show True Violent Colours! Yes, yes, first paragraph sub headline, Dark Pecking Underside: How the Dalai Lama Backed the Wrong Set of Wings…”

The coyote’s net began to fly through the air, the hummingbird’s beak pierced the elk’s eyelid, the moose stampeded on the ants’ houses, the duck’s wing snapped as he clattered to the ground, the fox bit the moose’s ankle, and….

Oh lordy where have I ended up? I’d better reverse a little. Ok, hang on… Right. So the hummingbird noticed everyone was lighting matches. And then:

The hummingbird realised that her wing motion was driving oxygen to the flames – the strength of the fire was partly her doing.

She remembered that she, too, had lit many, many matches. In fact she had lit one just this morning, in a desperate bid to fit in with the other animals, so that they would allow her to continue living in the forest – so that they would not drive her out for being strange and unusual.

Realising her complicity in the fire which had consumed her home, she flew to where the stream swelled to a river, intending to throw herself in, to have the water wash away her sins as she drowned…

No no no, that won’t do either, this is turning into some kind of animal snuff story.

“Huh, now you notice the death content,” said the fox. “That metaphor with my tail is pathetic. Bloody repression, murder, habitats wiped out – yet all you can come up with is a singed tail?!”

“And what about all our cousins along the Louisiana coast?” said the duck. “What are you going to do, have the hummingbird lick them back to life?”

“The forest fire metaphor doesn’t seem to include the damage being done to my habitats,” complained the whale.

“And me, what am I, some kind of magic balm?” grumbled the stream. “Like, if people just hunt out a few drops they will solve everything? I’m messed up too, y’know!”

Hmm. All very good points.

Okay. In my attempt to name all the missing parts to this story without taking us to a very dark, unhopeful place, I’ll admit defeat.

But if in the meantime I could manage a parable, a nice easy metaphor, which kids and adults alike can use to analyse real life events, and to reflect on our real life actions, how about this:

When the bear saw the hummingbird flying from the stream and putting tiny drops of water on to the fire, he called out to her “O Hummingbird, what are you doing?”

The hummingbird replied, “I am doing what I can.”

As she turned towards the stream once more, she saw that all the animals were lighting matches.

“What are you doing?” she cried.

And the animals replied: “We are doing what we know.”

Extracts are from Flight of the Hummingbird, written and illustrated by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas with essays by Nobel Prize winners: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Wangari Maathai View an animation here.

Please also visit:
Pipelines in Wet’suwet’en Traditional Territory
Yinka Dene Alliance

a load of dumb animals

As long ago as 2005, Shell chairman Lord Oxburgh said he recognised climate change as a “disaster” but was waiting for a “regulatory framework” in order to act. Presumably he possessed an unusual dictionary, one which defines ‘disaster’ as ‘something you run towards very fast until the government tells you that it’s ok not to’.
The Independent – Shell Boss Warns Of Global Warming

In December 2010 a group of people stood trial in the UK for having planned to shut down a coal-fired power station and reduce climate-changing emissions. The prosecution barrister put it to them that the money they’d spent setting up the action would have been better spent hiring Cheryl Cole to advertise second-hand clothing as a solution to climate change.
Ratcliffe On Trial – Cheryl Cole

In the same case, the judge commended the defendants for having “the highest possible motives”. While sentencing them.
The Guardian – Ratcliffe Coal Protesters Sentenced

The Ratcliffe trial collapse exposed heavy police surveillance and infiltration of several action groups in the UK. Meanwhile the Canadian government was found to be monitoring First Nations ‘hot spots’ of political and protest activity.
IPSMO – Harper Targeted First Nations for Increased Surveillance

In 2011 Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) sponsored a poster for Climate Week. RBS is heavily involved in financing the global coal industry and the companies mining tar sands in Canada. Let’s assume the company was hoping that the poster would be really, really inspiring. Did it work? Well, the Climate Week website would like to thank everyone “for making Climate Week happen where they are”. Maybe that was the problem, the tar sands being a long long way from where the RBS shareholders are. Yup, that must be it.
Platform – Cashing In On Tar Sands (pdf)

Featured as “Rainstorm” in Issue #5 of Rainzine, Spring 2012.

UPDATE January 2013:

Indigenous people are rising up and organising in the face of not only centuries of colonialism, but new attacks on environmental protections. Harper’s Canadian Government is breaking treaties with its aggressive pro-oil anti-environmental agenda. Solidarity with the Idle No More movement!
Idle No More

UPDATE February 2013:

EDF, a UK energy company (another sponsor of Climate Week!) is suing activists for taking direct action which paused emissions:
- No Dash For Gas UK
- Short film about EDF suing activists
- The Guardian – Activists claim police siding with power company EDF in lawsuit
- What you can do: Solidarity around the EDF civil action

the hummingbird and the missing animals | 2012 | words | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments (1)

One Response to “the hummingbird and the missing animals”

  1. anita says:

    the frist time i read this, it made be cry…i often forget how thoughtful humans can be and this was a brilliant reminder…thank you so much for sharing.

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