Readings — From the January 2010 issue
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The hummingbirds are roaring in the gray light. They’re hungry from surviving the long night. Each day their numbers increase—broadbills, black-chins, violet-crowns, and now and then a blue-throat, ten a day, then twenty, then thirty, now fifty mobbing the feeders, and the lust for sugar is rising, and I get up and boil the water, make the solution, fill the feeders, and they come as surely as dusk and the moon is full and at the dawn the great blue herons fly up the creek and down the creek and at the dusk I can hear their slow wingbeats like the rhythm of some abandoned god—and I bolt at 10 a.m. and go toward the border and a mile from the house by the creek the road has flashing lights, ambulances, Border Patrol, the agents staring and strutting. I look over and ten or fifteen dark men in dark clothing sit on the brown dirt. Their faces strain to look blank. Men with guns stand around them. When I slow and stare, I realize their eyes are not blank, their eyes are not angry, their eyes are sad.
I am on the far side now, over in the other country where the countries bang against each other by this other creek flowing over rock and ruin as the land dries and the rains stay away?and the fruits writhe in the new sun of new days.
This has always been contested ground. For thousands of years, plants and animals felt their way into niches, then failed, then came again at the parched earth. We have a dim sense of this past from middens formed by rats in caves, from puzzling studies of pollen left in ancient pans of dirt, from bone piles of huge animals that no longer walk the earth. All this vanished reality is blocked from our view by lines on maps, men patrolling with guns to guard borders, by the demand for passports and visas, by men sitting in little booths and claiming abstract notions like sovereignty as we sweat in our cars waiting to cross from nation to nation. But beneath our asphalt and concrete the earth is whole, united, ferocious, and relentless.
This is the place where we always insist on our power because the enormity of the ground and the hard rules of the sky?make us tremble and fear that we do not have power.
A man comes here, puffs on his pipe, calls a tiny piece of the place Trinity, and ignites a force so large that everyone thinks they are finally safe even though they will never sleep well again after seeing that flash of light in the wet air before dawn on a summer day. The bomb he helped create will be dropped on a nation that wants to find a way to surrender so that another nation that is the ally of the United States will take notice. And stand in fear and pause in its efforts to gobble up remnants of the Japanese Empire that border the Soviet Union. This will never be admitted by the United States. Bombs can be dropped, cities destroyed, but motives always remain fictions. Nations need identities and these identities are based on stories, not facts. The land was found vacant by the ancestors, save for a few savages. Mexico crossed the American border and started the war. The bomb saved American lives—pick a number that feels good to you.
Before the Plains Indians went on the hunt for the buffalo, they made medicine so that the beasts would come and die for the people. We have made our own medicine and now we must swallow it.
Still, the hummingbirds come, each day more and more. Within their small skulls rest maps of a nectar trail that reaches from Alaska to Central America. They know more than we are likely ever to learn of the ground, but we barely notice them as they violate all borders and make love in the murderously dry air of early summer.
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