Sitting on the cabin's deck was like having a front-row seat at a dragstrip. The birds would park themselves on the perches of a bird feeder, seesawing back and forth to take little sips of sugar water. Then, with a snap, their bodies would shift from sitting to hovering and zip into the treeline.
The lavender in the garden sparkled in the afternoon sun. A light wind played over Westcott Bay, rippling tiny flags on sailboats berthed far from shore. Mary and I had planned this week-long summer getaway so I could finish the manuscript for my second book. After lazy mornings tucked under electric blankets in the cabin, we would spend a few hours walking or drive to Friday Harbor, take in brunch, and then I'd settle down to write for the balance of the afternoon and evening.
This continuous display of nature made the writing hard. We had seen the red bird feeder outside the cabin on previous trips, but those had been in late fall or winter. We'd never had a chance to see the hummingbirds during their migration. I don't think I have ever seen so many hummingbirds in one place. For every sentence typed into the computer, it seemed like there was at least one hummingbird finding its way to the feeder or coursing its way around the yard.
We weren't only dazzled by the hummingbirds. We saw large woodpeckers digging into a rotted log, island cats stalking across the asphalt road looped behind a string of summer homes, a herd of deer pacing through the backyard at dusk. Ants thronged around the herb garden. At one point, two deer were fighting about twenty feet away over who would have first dibs on eating from a tasty bush. In another situation, a baby doe fed on grass up to her shoulder, causing me to arrest the clickety-clack of the computer keys to more clearly hear her chew. In all of these cases, our presence was noted with mild disinterest.
None of this would have been visible to me if I hadn't been sitting on a wooden chair in the backyard, every afternoon.
Within two days of our stay, the bird feeder was nearly depleted. Over dinner that night, Mary and I pondered: Do we refill it?
The cabin we were staying at had no Internet. This was intentional, so we could get away from Seattle and find some focus. So Mary had to use her iPhone for some Internet sleuthing, and figure out how to feed the hummingbirds. With additional information, things only became more confusing.
In sifting through the pantry, we found only raw sugar and powdered sugar. Powdered sugar may be the most crack-like delivery mechanism for sucrose imagined by man—just say the words "funnel cake" and you start salivating. But it isn't pure sugar. It has additional corn starch added to reduce caking. Same goes for raw sugar, which has extra iron in it. Hummingbirds can't process these additives. They prefer pure sucrose. Which made us wonder: What had the hummingbirds been eating up to that point? Who was refilling the feeder? Were they slowly killing the birds?
To be safe, we decided to drive to the grocery store before it closed to purchase white sugar. We also cleaned the feeder before refilling it, as anywhere sugar touches can mildew.
These birds didn't need our help. During this time of year, the high temperatures, light breeze, and blooming flowers and trees everywhere must make for an ideal stopover during their commute up the Pacific coast.
I couldn't help but catch the subtle irony of the situation. Here I was, a user experience designer that didn't let the feeder run out and see if the birds would return to the garden without any additional incentive beyond a flower garden. Instead, I didn't want to risk their absence during our final days of the trip. Or, to put it another way: For the first time in my life, I could see this beautiful bird when he was at rest, all day long. Even if his movements distracted me from what I was trying to do.
The substance of our world can be like sugar water in a sealed tube. Our thoughts and emotions circle, dart around it. We stop, reflect, sip through the provided straw. If we stay too long in one place, we often get stuck in thinking it's the only place to find sustenance.
From a hummingbird's perspective, this really isn't a problem. There's no clear reason why I would be there, watching him eat a fraction of the sugar he'll need for a day's flying… other than it's a lovely place to burn your knees on an overheated MacBook Pro.
I'm the one that isn't moving.