Wednesday, October 20

The word hummingbird | The weekly country



The word hummingbird repeats: unlike German and some forms of Aymara, Spanish does not abound in words that join two others to create a different notion, such as chupacirios, curacuras, lickers and other gastronomic-theological variants. Of all, the hummingbird is probably the most volatile. The hummingbird is, of course, a beautiful and unhappy little bird: colored iridescent, it stays in the air and produces a delightful image. Only, to do so, he suffers: his heart beats a thousand times a minute and his digestion is so accelerated that it forces him to eat without rest. That is why he lives suspended in front of those flowers, pecking at them: what we see as beauty is his hunger, his desperation to stay alive.

But a hummingbird was also – when there was – a man who tried to seduce more than reasonable and is also – there always is – a curious effect: he is described by an American writer, Steven Johnson, in a book that has fascinated me, How We Got To Now – “How we got so far”. There he talks about the “hummingbird effect”: how improbable causes are producing unthinkable effects to create what we did not imagine.

The eponymous example is clear: millions of years ago, plants sought to reproduce more. They needed their pollen to mix with others and, for that, they had to attract insects to carry it, so they began to develop colors, smells, flavors – flowers – for those little bugs to approach and suck. The bugs, in turn, changed to do better: very flexible invertebrates, they learned to stay in the air. Birds, rigid, skeletal beasts, couldn’t, until one began to evolve to do so. The hummingbird is the only bird that can hover while it sucks — and the only bird that can fly in any direction. It seems strange that the necessity of reproduction of plants ended up producing such a special animal: thus, says Johnson, civilizations develop.

His examples of hummingbird effects are varied, surprising: I especially like the one involving Gutenberg. We know that his invention of the movable type printing press – 1440 – produced an unknown spread of books, and that millions learned to read; We know that thanks to these readings the modern novel appeared, among other things; We know that Protestantism grew out of these readings of the translated Bible.

But we do not know – I did not know – that so many, wanting to read, discovered that they were myopic. Until then, for a peasant or a maiden or a marquis, seeing the little thing was not necessary; glasses or spectacles had been invented centuries before but were only used by those monks who copied small letters on large scrolls in huge monasteries. Suddenly thousands and thousands of new readers discovered that the letters danced to them and they began to need them and the optics exploded. A hundred years later, glasses were popular, they were sold at fairs — and those artisans saw that, by working their lenses, they could achieve unthinkable magnifications.

Around 1600 they began to produce the first telescopes and microscopes: men saw what they had never seen. In those decades astronomers discovered that we did not occupy the center of the universe but a modest corner, hummingbirds around a minor sun; the doctors discovered that our meats were made of tiny units that they had never been able to distinguish before and that they called cells, like those of a honeycomb. The world, suddenly, became another, because a German had invented a way to print and many had wanted to start reading.

Thus, says Johnson, what we are is building up: the despair of a plant that unwittingly produces a beautiful bird by dint of suffering, the result of an attempt that never wanted to get where it did, the mixture more than anything else, chance and openness, the cause of an effect. Hummingbirds, emergencies in the air.


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