Finding joy and wonder from a seat on the porch

I have become aware of many things since my husband Ray died. At first, it had to do with the content of my dreams – visual images and messages that brought me closer to feeling his presence in my non-waking hours. As time went on, that closeness has come through beautiful images I see in the natural world – on hikes in the mountains, in the sky at sunset and often in my own back yard, mostly through visits from hummingbirds.

For many years, we both witnessed the beauty of these tiny but determined creatures as they drank from feeders on our back porch. But now, I feel an almost intimate connection with them as they have made their home in nests in both my front and back yards.

I am not a “woo-woo” kind of gal, but I knew something significant was going on when I noticed a nest no bigger than a half of a walnut shell on the tiny twinkle light suspended over the seat where Ray often sat when we ate dinner outdoors. I couldn’t be on my porch for more than a minute without the hummer hovering overhead. I began to wonder: Is this a messenger from the “other side” wanting to tell me something? Should I do anything about it? Put up extra feeders? Talk to the tiny glittering creature as it whizzed overhead?

I started reading books about the meaning of the hummingbird. I learned that it is the tiniest of all birds and the only creature that can stop while traveling at full speed. It can hover or fly forward, backward, up or down, its wings moving in the configuration of an eight, the sign for infinity.

In many traditional cultures of the Western world, the hummingbird has powerful religious and spiritual significance. In the high Andes of South America, the hummingbird is a symbol of resurrection. Hopi and Zuni legends tell of hummingbirds intervening on behalf of humans, convincing the gods to bring rain. Other mystical traditions believe it represents the past and the future and opens up the heart center, bringing joy, happiness and love into the world. And there is a belief that the hummingbird represents a messenger between the worlds. One thing was certain: anyway I looked at it, having a hummer on my back porch was a good thing.

But one morning everything changed. As I was drinking my coffee on my front porch, I noticed something that resembled a feathered tiny tea cup on a branch of the potted ficus tree next to our front door. There, camouflaged amidst the leaves, was the tiniest, most compact nest I have ever seen. The nest was home to two tiny hummer eggs no bigger than the tip of my pinkie on the same porch where I had created a meditation garden to honor Ray after he died.

The magic and miracle of having hummingbird nests on my front and back porches continues to overwhelm me. I stop several times each day to watch the mommy birds, whose wings normally flap 50 times per second, sit perfectly still atop their nest. I marvel at the complexity of the home they have constructed for their babies, made of moss, fiber and plant down, and how smart they are to choose secure, shaded spots on the porch for their babies. I feel like I am living on the Disney Nature Channel as I watch this unfold: first eggs and now babies the size of my thumbnail, peeking out from tiny nests.

I have always loved animals, but there is something so precious about this experience that I can’t stop thinking about how these mommy hummers have given me an opportunity to experience both awe and compassion in viewing their maternal process.

The Jewish commandment to treat animals with compassion is mentioned on numerous occasions throughout the Torah and the Talmud. In the book of Deuteronomy, we are commanded not to work on the Sabbath and likewise, must not require our animals to do so. We are told how to avoid causing suffering (“tza’ar ba’alei chayim” in Hebrew) by not muzzling an animal when it is working (so that it can eat when it needs to) or plowing with an ox and mule together (because their unequal size and strength will cause them both to suffer). But what I love most is the prohibition of taking baby birds from the nest while the mother is present because of the pain that she would experience. How amazing to think that more than 2,500 years ago, our Jewish ancestors were concerned with protecting the feelings of a momma bird!

Hummingbirds often return to the same location to build a new nest on top of the old one. I look forward to next spring when I hope to be blessed again with the joy and wonder that these little hummers have given me.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide.

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