Nectar of Life

Howard sat on the screened in porch. He looked down at his wrinkled hands. Each knuckle was red and swollen. His fingernails were pale with a half halo yellow tinge around the perimeter of each cuticle. His hands were stiff and difficult to manipulate. Getting a good grip on his cane when he was walking was nearly impossible these days. Years of farming, and the hard work that went along with the occupation, had taken there toll on Howard’s hands and knees.

He wouldn’t have traded all those years of self employment as a dairy farmer for anything. His younger days of this rugged work were in the distant past. Howard gave up farming in 1989 when the milk prices plunged, the cost of labor was high, and general expenses like grain and fuel went through the roof. Howard was never lucky enough to have children. His wonderful wife, Elsie, became ill with breast cancer in her late twenties and passed away. Howard never found another to love like Elsie.

Howard did have a loving niece, Adelle, who took him in when he could no longer care for the idle farm. Adelle had always taken a shine to Howard. She visited him on the farm regularly over the years, often stopping over after school to help him with chores. After Elsie died Howard didn’t have anyone to really confide in. Adelle was happy to listen to Howard talk about day to day life on the farm. His gentle way and careful perspective on life were, to her, endearing.

So when Howard could no longer live safely on his own Adelle asked him to move in with her family. Howard was a little embarrassed, but also relieved. Adelle lived on the outside of town in a small Cape with her husband, Ed, and two boys. The house sat on 5 acres and was surrounded by post agricultural farmland that was for the most part acres and acres of goldenrod and asters. Adelle was happy to help her uncle, and found his company welcome while the boys were at school and Ed was working at the hardware store. Adelle loved her uncle. Howard was still the same inspiration to her now as he was when she visited him on the farm.

Howard had learned to love the natural world while running his farm. He was one of the first farmers in the area to stop using chemical fertilizers, and his cows were grazed, rather than kept in feeding pens, throughout his farming career. Howard was the first farmer in the area to stop using unnecessary pesticides and dangerous herbicides.

In what little spare time during the days that he was farming, Howard loved to walk the edge of the pastures and watch the bees and hummingbirds forage on the wild flower nectar. He would just stand in one place and watch a hummingbird dance from flower to flower collecting nature’s nectar. His favorite time was when the jewelweed blossomed and the hummingbirds and bees were busy working the small orange tubular flowers. Adelle would often go walking with him in those days. Her appreciation of all things wild was learned from her short excursions with Uncle Howard. Some of her fondest memories as a little girl were holding Howard’s massive and powerful hand as they walked to the back forty. Howard was always happy and thoughtful on these walks. He was more talkative than usual, and he smiled a lot during the walks. As they walked to the back pastures Howard would talk about one cow or another, the condition of his hay after the last cutting, or what he had for dinner the previous evening. He would ask Adele about her life, and would take great interest in what she was learning at school. But when they reached the back forty and the vast areas of flowers the bees and hummingbirds were working Howard would just stand there and stare with a great big smile on his face. His eyes would focus on an individual hummingbird and follow it from flower to flower. He became temporarily immersed in his surroundings. He never really explained why but Adele was certain that these experiences brought him the greatest of pleasures. Adelle was forever captured by his pleasure in the wild fields.

And now Howard was very old and couldn’t get around very easily. He loved sitting on the back porch where there was a good view of a flower garden, a natural meadow with many wild flowers, and some flowering shrubs in the back yard. Howard would sit there with his binoculars at his side. The flower bed was adjacent to screened porch, and was covered with bee balm, butterfly bush, delphiniums, and other flowers all recently planted by Adele so that Howard could watch the hummingbirds and bees. The shrubs in the yard included rose of Sharon, highbush blueberry, forsythia, and a few roses. The natural meadow was covered with goldenrods, asters, and jewelweed.

Adele called the backyard “Howard’s Paradise” because Howard would sit there for hours watching this little corner of the planet.

On this day, in the late afternoon, Howard sat in his favorite chair that let him look directly at the flower garden. The royal red bee balm was in full bloom and the crimson color dominated the surrounding landscape. Howard watched intently as a male ruby throated hummingbird bounced from flower to flower collecting nectar. The small bird was as intent at keeping other hummingbird “intruders” out of its territorial garden as he was at collecting nectar. As soon as another hummingbird appeared, even if it was at the other end of the flower bed some 75 feet away, the male hummingbird would shoot over there sounding like an outboard motor crossing the air. He certainly was aggressive at defending his territory. Howard took great interest in this hummingbird’s actions.

Howard had read a great deal about Hummingbirds this summer. He had received a book on the topic from Adele earlier in the year on his birthday. Howard learned that hummingbirds were notoriously fast, a fact he confirmed on a daily basis, and were capable of flying outright up to 30 miles per hour, and could even dive at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. He learned that the males were not the best Dads, leaving the rearing of the chicks entirely up to the female. Howard learned from the book that a single Hummingbird can visit more than 1000 flowers in a single day and can rotate their wings in a circle allowing them to fly forward, backward, up, down, and stay, for long periods of time, in a stationary position. Howard was fascinated that this species migrated all the way to Panama in the winter, and in one day on the end of the migration route crossed over 500 miles of ocean as the crossed the Gulf of Mexico. He learned that not only do they use nectar for forage but they also ate a lot of insects, particularly the flying kind that could be easily hunted by the fast moving and maneuverable hummingbird. Howard learned that a hummingbird was 30% muscle, and had a heart that beat up to 1200 times per minute. And the one fact that really stuck in Howard’s mind was that Hummingbird’s brain weighed in at 4 percent of its body weight.

Although all of these facts were a great deal of fun and fascinated Howard they did not even come close to the act of watching these amazing athletes from the comfort of his porch. Howard was enamored by the beauty of this tiny bird. The hummingbird’s feathers, having an iridescent quality, showed the brilliant red on the throat, and the greenish plumage in the direct sunlight in dazzling, supersaturated color. Howard was fascinated with the shear motion of a hummingbird. Hovering over a flower, darting to another flower, zipping to the edge of the flower bed in hot pursuit of another invading hummingbird, zooming back to a flower, hovering, once again, to gather more nectar, the hummingbird seemed to have no end to its energy. The bird’s display of energy was almost more than Howard could bear on this day and at some point Howard nodded off to sleep while watching the birds.

When he awoke Adele was sitting in the chair next to him. She had placed her had on top of his in an act of affection. Howard opened his eyes and saw Adele smiling at him.

I must have drifted off,” he said, “I was watching the humming birds and I fell asleep”.

Howard waited a moment, recollecting a dream he had just had.

I dreamed I was young again,” he said in a crackly voice, “and Elsie and I were standing in a wild meadow full of flowers.”

Howard waited a moment before he spoke again.

You know, before Elsie died she told me she wanted to come back to earth as a hummingbird. I always kind of thought that she did,” he reflected.

Do you remember going with me to the back forty where all the jewelweed grew?” Howard asked.

And before Adele had time to answer he said, “I always went up there hoping to get just one glimpse of her. I stared at every hummingbird trying to figure out which one might be her.”

Howard stared out to the back yard.

One day I realized I had been looking at hummingbirds for a decade and loving every minute of it. I think that’s what Elsie wanted. She wanted me to slow down and take the time to smell the flowers,” Howard said.

But you know, Adele, one day I did see Elsie. Oh I don’t mean her face was on a hummingbird! But, one day I was standing there up in the wild flower meadow, alone you know, and I felt her presence. She had been gone for 20 years, and suddenly I felt she was right in front of me. I watched this hummingbird for quite some time. I don’t know, it sounds kind of crazy. But wouldn’t you know, before that darned bird left the area it flew one complete circle right around my head! It was a feeling I had! She was there, telling me everything was Okay. Yep, sure sounds crazy when you say it out loud.”

Howard continued to look off into the distance.

My happiest moments in my younger days were those few years I had with Elsie. But those times you and I spent watching the hummingbirds in the back forty, they were pretty close.”

Adele squeezed his hand.

Howard closed his eyes again, hoping to nod off and return to Elsie and a heaven full of hummingbirds, jewelweed, goldenrod, and asters.

Originally written in 2009 for the Heath Herald and recently edited for Wild Ramblings in 2014.

  • Annie

    What a beautiful story Bill. Brought on a tear or two.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you! Not that I wanted to make you cry!

  • Emily Brisse

    Lovely. It is indeed a gift to help someone slow down and notice the earth’s beauty. This was a unique treat to read this cold January afternoon. Thank you for sharing, Bill!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Emily. Every once in a while I get a different story in my head. Also nice to think about, as you point out, in the middle of winter.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    Beautiful. I have no doubt those who have passed communicate with us in unusual ways … birds among us …

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes. As someone of part Native American heritage I can tell you that birds, in particular, carry messages for those who are willing to receive them by observing and listening. Four that are very apparent in my life are red tailed hawks, barred owls, crows, and ravens. Of course these are culturally significant as well. Thanks Teresa!

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