6/19/2005

Clap If You Believe In Faeries


Littlestar and I stood out on the deck, stepping over every few minutes to avoid the slowly moving blade of sunshine as it crept along the wood and ate the shadows. The day was hot.

I heard a sound. I thought a mosquito was in my ear and then changed my mind to identify it as a distant truck. It was a spitting, low-pitched but rapid thrumming that ramped and warbled in an irregular but tight cycle. It was a sound from out of this world -- belonging not in a leafy garden but in a television. It boggled my senses until Littlestar said:

"Do you see that hummingbird?"

On the rail of the deck was a plastic vial of red-dyed hummingbird ale, from which a hummingbird drank. The purr of its beating wings Dopplered back and forth as it hovered around the mouth of the container, sipping in dips and darts.

"I do," I said.

And for a moment before it left the bird regarded us with its tiny face, needle-thin beak disappearing in the frontal perspective leaving only two glittering eyes. It cocked its head, seemed to consider something, and then vanished when we blinked, its fading drone seeming to come from any direction and unfathomable in distance.

And so the hummingbird was gone. "You know," said Littlestar, "they look like little people when they rear up like that. I bet that's where faeries came from."

"I bet you're right," I said.

If I, a twenty-first century man of the West, find something unearthly you had better believe it's weird. I live in an age immersed in a constant soup of visual and aural phantasmagoria in which anything the imagination conceives can be rendered. Nevertheless, hummingbirds remain a unique example of some pretty fucked up shit.

Come evening we sat on the balcony, drinking wine and luxuriating in the coolness that had come with the sunset. Now in twilight the air had a strange colour, a shadowless gloom of pink reflected from the purple sky. In the field beyond our yard the bushes winked with little shooting stars -- lightning bugs!

We tried to point them out to each other at the same time.

The expanse of glimmering winks slowly grew as the strange light failed. They glowed in the air above the field, and over the grass of our yard. When the sky turned black they flew beneath the balcony, leaving drifting afterimage arcs in our vision like cloud chamber trails.

I never did see or hear any insect. The "bug" part of lightning bug is just something I know. It is an inexperienced fact which satisfies the curiosity that would otherwise grasp in awe of the bewilderingly beautiful phenomenon that is fireflies waggling their asses suggestively at one another.

Without this knowledge, the strange light of twilit summer evenings amid hummingbirds and fireflies would seem to be enchanted. From this point of view positing the existence of things like faeries, sprites, and hobgoblins seems like a rational defense -- an attempt to ground the experience in terms of nature (little creatures) rather than supernature (mystic energies). In other words, what seems to us today to be a magickal response may have in fact been the sceptics' choice of the day, in defiance of more esoteric explanations involving unearthly hosts.

Nowadays, of course, even the booger-sized computers at the heart of my toddler's talking toys have enough calculatory chutzpah to create a particle system with the same visual properties as a cloud of lightning bugs. But it isn't the same.

Wrapped in a warm blanket of facts and overstimulus, it is easy to become disconnected from wonder and thereby damned. It becomes hard not only to believe in faeries, but to even sympathize with someone who would without tainting it with pity. But we'd drop our smug quickly if the ancient man pitied us, for having lost something.

I am not a mediaevalist. I don't mean to celebrate ignorance, or to glaze history with rosy Vaseline. But I learned something in my back yard: even though I've seen Revenge of the Sith twice, a hummingbird is still a more memorable feast for the senses. And that a fleet of fireflies is better appreciated in the dark -- that is, when you don't know what they are.

Harder than believing in faeries is disbelieving in the twenty-first century, what with all its noise and hooplah and favourable reviews on consumer surveys. Being exceedingly modern is all the rage, and it is de rigeur to adopt a world-view that seems rational (or can at least be defended as such).

My question is this: what has rationality done for you lately?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi there. I've much admired your writing, especially The Darth Side and your blog.

I would like to point something out about this blog entry. I really liked the point you are making and believe much the same myself. That said, I must tell you (I have a biology background, so I really can't help it) that hummingbirds are a New World group of animals. This means that in Europe were most faerie legends originated, there were no hummingbirds to base faeries on. I hope I don't sound too pedantic. I'm just chiming in for accuracy's sake. It is a beautiful post and don't wish to detract from it.

Keep writing. I'll keep reading.

Cheers,
Tom

Jim said...

CBB ...
Not withstanding Tom's comment (damn! a great theory debunked by scientific fact!), I agree totally with the spirit of your post. I would like to add that examples such as the hummingbird and lightning bug abound in the natural world. As you note, you don't have to go very far to find tiny miracles if your mind is open to them. Just take a stroll around the backyard with a young child and you can share a bit of the wonder that they feel when confronted with the diversity of life: A spider's web; a trail of ants crossing the yard (I've spent hours with my kids watching leaf-cutter ants at work); any bird is a marvel to watch...

Unfortunately, familiarity breeds contempt. As we age, we generally lose that sense of awe that you so vividly describe, although special moments can trigger it: you might see a hummingbird every day and not think a thing of it. But suddenly, you notice it, and ... Wow! ... that's incredible! For me, one of the great thing about raising kids is having the chance to reawaken that sense of awe, and see the world through their eyes just a little bit.

As to "Revenge of the Sith": maybe our obsession for movies, music and even art in general, is in some way a manifestation of our necessity, as human beings, to experience that sense of awe modern man has lost, and to recover a bit of the innocence of our infancy. I'm commenting on this, because I know that you know it: in fact, it seems to be the principal theme of Simon of Space (and one of the aspects I find most interesting about your story!).

Jim said...

Sorry .. I can't help but add one more comment, 'cause I'm cracking up by myself!

I just noted Google's AdSense choices on this page ...
- Ultimate Insect Repellent
- Bed Bugs Biting You?
- Pest Control
... etc

At least there's no "Hummingbird Extermination service" ad!

NolaPete said...

Four years ago I took my daughter to visit some friends in Elizabeth, Colorado. One day we drove over to take the cog-rail tram up to the summit of Pike's Peak. At the tram station, there were many enormous hummingbird feeders hung all around. There was a literal horde of hummingbirds; like a convention of sorts. They were flitting between the feeders completely enchanting us with their aerial display. The most curious thing about the event was when they would actually land and perch on the wires and tree branches and look around. Then they would zip into a kamikaze-type dive-bombing frenzy. If faeries do exist, they surely live at the foot of Pike's Peak.

Kyle said...

My question is this: what has rationality done for you lately?

You dare ask this question on The Internet?

*grin*

I use a computer (a product of rationality if there ever was one) to feed my family. I spend all day every day relying on products of rationality.

Don't get me wrong. I really loved your post, and I don't have a problem with celebrating a certain romanticism. That said, at the end of the day I have a lot more use for light bulbs than lightning bugs.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Kyle,

Ah, but the lightbulb isn't the product of your rationality, is it? Your rationality only operates in the process so far as deciding to purchase the lightbulb, and managing to screw it into the fixture without hurting yourself.

As I said, I'm not a mediaevalist. Social, institutional and technological rationality are essential for a civilization.

I'm talking about day to day. Borrowing from a history of rationality doesn't count.

Love,

CheeseburgerBrown

Anne Arkham said...

Goddammit. You made me cry again.

Kyle said...

I'm talking about day to day. Borrowing from a history of rationality doesn't count.

OK, fine. I'm still paid (and fed) through the exercise of rationality. Though I find a certain art in the code I write, it is nevertheless the same as the art in clockwork. While this food-on-the-table stuff seems boring compared to hummingbirds and fireflies, it's as essential as the foundation of the house. What it has done for me lately is facilitate the sitting around and musing over the nature of freaky fliers.

You dig?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Kyle,

That can't be denied. Obviously what we should seek is an ideal medium.

Art without rationality is prehistory. But rationality without art is just plain boring.

:)

Matthew Frederick Davis Hemming
http://mfdh.ca

Jim said...

My question is this: what has rationality done for you lately?

I actually thought this was a rhetorical question.

That can't be denied. Obviously what we should seek is an ideal medium.

Hmmm... sounds like Cygnus, the bringer of Balance. I think I've heard this Story before...

jonny-no-stars said...

I do!

They flew over Bristol in WWII

Lisa said...

I think it's important to hang on to a little mystery and fantasy in a world where daily supposition is killed by fact =)

And I absolutely love your writing. I came here from my husband's blog, he is a huge fan of your work as well.

Carrie said...

bad, bad cheeseburger brown...grateful anne arkam sent me here. thanks for letting me see out the portals in your head to your little vantage point on the world.

evercurious said...

I want to be a hummingbird in my next life. Hopefully it works out. They always leave me amazed. So much beauty in such a tiny little package.

Paul said...

You have some mad writing skillz :)