What it Means to be Free

At dinnertime here in the central mountains of Mexico, the colibries (hummingbirds) in my ‘hood flock to the feeders on my terrace for their last drink of the day.

There are dozens of them, or at least that’s how it seems. They’re hard to count (and to photograph) — always flitting, swooping, darting, swishing, pushing, shoving, flying forward and backward, sometimes bumping into each other like bumper cars at the county fair, then stopping briefly for some sips of sweet nectar before nightfall when they rush off to wherever bed is.

Four colibries at two of my feeders

Not having a cat or dog or any other dependent creature in my life here in San Miguel de Allende now, I consider these colibries my pets. I’d name them if I could – short names befitting their tiny, thumb-size stature, like Joe or Sam or Sue or Ike – but I’m sure even I couldn’t tell them apart. I feed them, happily refilling my feeders every day with the sugar-water solution I make (in a 1:4 ratio) to keep them coming back to me.

Just two of “my” colibries

Then every late-afternoon/early-evening I sit and watch them from a small table on my terrace as if this were the best show in town. And sometimes they swoop in within inches of my face as if to say hi or thanks.

More swooping in

I learned recently that the hummingbird is the bird assigned to the astrological sign Taurus. Well, that’s me! But how diametrically different the almost-weightless, darting, ethereal hummingbird is from us heavy, plodding, earthbound bulls. It must be the bird we would most wish to be, if promised a big wish. Yes! To be small and light and to dance in the air like that — so carefree!

I’ve never been a birder. You know, the type of person who tiptoes among the brambles like a burglar at dawn with big binoculars in hand. I’ve simply envied birds from afar for most of my life. As a young child I even envied flies, for the same reason: They can fly! I wanted so badly to fly away.

But birders appear to make a specialty of this envy. Remember Christian Cooper, the birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park who was falsely accused of threatening a woman and her unleashed dog three years ago? Longer story shortened: That woman lost her job. But Cooper got a better one. He became the host of National Geographic’s new show, “Extraordinary Birder.”

Christian Cooper, birdwatcher

Cooper has also written a soon-to-be published book, titled Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World, an excerpt of which was published this week as an essay in The New York Times’s Opinion section:


It’s a beautiful essay, which echoes my sentiments about hummingbirds but goes, of course, much further. It makes me want to become a birder.

I’ll quote a little from Cooper’s essay here and then let him have the last word: “…beyond all that, we [birdwatchers] love birds for a simple reason: They can fly. We see them launch themselves effortlessly up into a medium with no boundaries while we remain earthbound, and we are inspired to dream.

“Imagine watching land and sea unfold beneath you not through the windows of an airplane but under your own power. The things that you’ve left behind recede to insignificance, put into new perspective by a towering vantage point. What it must be like to hang suspended on the wind, how radically different to conceive of movement not in two dimensions, not just as backward and forward, left and right, but in three — always infinite possibilities of direction, the body rising and falling at will. We lift our gaze skyward to the birds and see what it means to be free.”