Tuning our mental wireless to be more loving
Today Oggie and I walked down to the Westwater stream, stopping to listen as a bird sang five distinct tunes over and over. Something about her beautiful voice silvering the air brought me joy, but because the foliage was so thick, I couldn’t see her.
Leaving Oggie on the trail, I climbed some boulders to scan the tops of the cottonwoods and Russian olives, but even using binoculars, I couldn’t spot her.
I let the binoculars swing down around my neck and tried to mimic a few of her melodies – with dismal success. However, someone who could have imitated her with uncanny accuracy came to my mind.
I first learned about Charles Kellogg, the Bird Man of the Redwood Forest, some years ago when my family and I toured northern California.
Kellogg was born in 1868 in Spanish Ranch, a Sierra Nevada town. His mom abandoned the family when he was three, so until he was six or seven he was raised by his dad, Chinese miners, a Chinese servant, and a Native American woman.
He said during that time he was “always preoccupied with birds and insects, listening to them and talking to them in their own languages” (Ian Nagoski, “Sound American: Sites of Formation”).
Kellogg was born with an unusual larynx and an incredible vocal range, which he said was twelve-and-a-half octaves.
Although that claim has been strongly disputed and even discounted as self-promotion, a physicist of the time, Richard Zeckwer, used tuning forks to validate it.
“Zeckwer said that Kellogg’s bird voice had a vibration of 14,000 hertz and reached levels of 40,000 hertz – so high that it was inaudible to human ears” (Valerie Kauffman, “The Man Who Talked to Birds”).
Whatever the truth, Kellogg could mimic birds by closing his mouth and creating the sounds from his throat, a talent which he took on the road in vaudeville shows and later in his Travel Log, part of a fallen redwood tree which he fashioned into a cabin and mounted onto a Nash Quad in a campaign to save the Redwood Forest.
He remained passionate about forests all his life and believed if humans had no desire to subdue or hurt wildlife, we could become friends.
Failing to make friends or even cajole the mysterious bird into the open, I rejoined Oggie, and we walked across the bridge to the west side of the canyon, listening for other songs.
This year, much to my distress, many of the migratory birds have not returned. It’s probably because 2020’s wildfires caused widespread deaths in Western bird populations, but oddly, I’ve seen more hummingbirds than ever.
Some species of this tiny bird weigh less than an ounce, enabling them to fly at incredibly high speeds. In fact, according to Birds and Blooms author, John Shewey, they “fly faster than a fighter jet, relative to size,” and as we headed south on the trail, two zipped by at 20 or 30 miles an hour, parting around us like the Red Sea so close I could almost feel the miniature wind from their wings.
Startled, I stopped in my tracks, trying to follow their jet stream. Within seconds they zoomed past again. That happened three times.
Besides feeling like we were being woven in hummingbird magic, I was grateful they were skilled enough not to impale us, and skilled they are.
Their wings move in a rapid figure eight pattern, so they can fly forward, backward, sideways, upside down, and hover in midair.
They’re called jewels of the sky because their feathers act like prisms and shimmer in the sunlight, yet despite their diminutive beauty, they’re fearless and harass hawks and even eagles.
They’re also intelligent with superb memories. One of my friends who lives near Westwater feeds the miniscule warriors. If she lets the feeders go empty, they tap on her window, and she told me the same ones return year after year.
I questioned how anyone could recognize the same hummers, but scientists have tagged and tracked them, and they do indeed return to the same feeders annually.
After our close encounter with the little speed demons, Oggie and I finished our loop around Westwater, but before we climbed out of the canyon, I spotted another hummingbird perched on a pinion, so we paused to watch.
A second one began hovering around the base of the tree, darting in and out of the bottom branches. Since no flowers bloomed anywhere near, its antics seemed inexplicable.
Soon, it roused a third hummer, and they whizzed off with the one perched on the tree, vibrating the air with their speed.
That supersonic vibration is one reason they symbolize joy. Not surprisingly, Charles Kellogg believed vibration connected everything in nature and even promoted tuning our “mental wireless” to make us more loving, a concept his 1913 audiences couldn’t grasp.
However, scientists now know that on the subatomic level, everything vibrates, and if two things come into close proximity, their vibrations begin to synchronize.
Perhaps that’s the gift of the solitary singer by the stream and the humming sky jewels. As we listen and watch, they can help us live with courage and joy, something much easier said than done in this drought year with wildfires already raging.
So, when Oggie and I gained the road and headed home, I offered my all-too human worries to the divine, trusting those hands that created both the hummingbird and the fire.