Patrick Howlett
How Hummingbirds Choose Flowers

15 December 2012 to 2 February 2013


Greetings from The Golden State! I’m sorry it has taken me so long to write. Since I holed myself up here in the San Gabriels on this self-directed residency to whittle away on the novel, I’ve relieved myself of the usual social obligations. I’ve decided that solitude is good for me. My cabin is cozy and modestly equipped: a hot plate, a feather bed, a bookshelf loaded with old paperbacks, and a window on every wall. From the top of this hill, I like to think that the cabin is a compass: I have a view in every cardinal direction. I dragged a table over to the south window—knocking one of the legs inward in the process, crippling it—and made it my writing desk. And here I am now, writing to you in the glare of constant, sideways light, the birds flitting from branch to branch outside. You would love it here. You should apply for a residency next year—but only if I decide to leave!

I have to admit, when I first arrived, the prospect of being miles from any television or wireless signal had its charms. The only place to check email is at the mom-and-pop four miles “down the hill”. But for the last week I’ve been in an inconsolable funk. The solitude has been harder than I imagined. I want evidence that my city life is still intact; any sort of dispatch other than sun and trees and bird whistles. Worse still, my progress (and interest) on the novel has waned. Yet I’m adamant to keep regular hours at the “office”: sitting at the table in front of the window, regardless if I have my fingers on the keyboard or not, regardless if I’m rattling off genius or gibberish. And there I find my little joys: every day, a blue-and-white bird comes to eat toast crumbs that I leave for him on a stump outside. The worn copy of The Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Birds from the bookshelf tells me he is called (the rather uninspiring) Western scrub jay. So, without a speck of shame, I rechristened him Twitter—I suspended my account when I came up here, and his regular appearance feels like a refresh.

And at least once a day, the most extraordinary thing happens: a ruby-throated hummingbird hovers in front of the window, looking in. At first I thought he was admiring his own reflection—like domestic budgies do—but reasoned that he was attracted to the Post-It notes I stuck all over the glass. The window is my temporary cork board; my novel planned out in yellow and fuchsia squares.

I’ve got to tell you that my amateur ornithology project pretty much consumes me these days. The scrub jay still comes around for crumbs, black phoebes sally about, snatching flies out of the air, and the hummingbird keeps visiting my southern window. I love looking at his nacred feathers, his blurred wings, in Emily Dickinsons words, “that rush of cochineal” at his throat, but it’s his behaviour that I find most remarkable. I amuse myself with the fantasy that he is a voracious reader, scanning, in some rhizomatic pattern, my bleeding felt-tip drivel in reverse. The Audubon guide says that scrub jays are one of the most intelligent species on the planet, so is it too unreasonable to assume that hummingbirds might have, in addition to an appetite for fluorescents, a poetic sensibility?
With best wishes from Birdland,

The novel has been completely pushed aside; as of yesterday, I’ve been collaborating with the birds. I’ve used up all my Post-Its and have resorted to cutting pages from books. I’ve been experimenting with new forms—shapes, colours, orientations, application methods—to keep the hummingbird interested. Now every window is plastered with these collages, and I’ve moved my desk to the center of the cabin so that I can monitor each one for his shadow on the glass. It might strike anyone that what I’m doing is a kind of absurdity—who knows what Canada Council will say when I file my final report. But I realized that I can no longer work in traditional narrative, and that the hummingbird’s habits generate an abstract poetry better than anything I could write. His desire—for visual stimulation, elucidation, the new... I’m not sure yet—needs to be translated into tangible form, into something to read, something to look at, or a series of things to flit between. Im trying to trace his vectors. Dickinson again: “But he, the best logician, / refers my clumsy eye — / to just vibrating blossoms! / an exquisite reply!”
See you in the woods,