The Hummingbird Dance
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
With the morning dew still present in the garden, the white-whiskered hermit hummingbird feeds on the Azucena flowers. Its needle-thin beak darts and its wings flap at high speed as it zips from one flower to the next. This is a calculated dance between flowers, framed through the lenses of the binoculars.
These Jason Sportscaster binoculars, fabricated in the ’80s, are now considered vintage. Kept pristine, they look almost new, but they have been in storage for 25 years. I try to read beyond the physical object. As I gaze through them and feel their weight—about half a kilo split between both hands—I now understand Peter’s love for them.
Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. With more than 130 species of hummingbirds, expert birdwatchers come here in search of these experiences. So did my uncle Peter when he first arrived as an exchange student in 1958, adopting the Paz family—my family—as his own. In 2014 he moved from Atlanta to live in Quito permanently. On his trips he would carry these wide-angle binoculars, seeking magical moments with birds that he could grasp only through an autofocus lens.
I do not value the object itself, but the memories it holds of my dear uncle Peter. I wish his binoculars had recorded actual instances of his close connection to the nature, birds, and Ecuador. Today, these binoculars are hard to find. The Jason empire was bought out and technology has shifted to high-performance models, with waterproof and fog-proof features, making the Sportscaster out of date.
Not for me.
Since inheriting Peter’s binoculars, I—alongside my son Nico, daughter Olivia, and husband Agustin—have started to see the birds that surround us in a different light. Secluded during COVID-19 in the countryside, watching them has become our new shared hobby. Through the viewfinder, we keep an up-to-date chronicle of the birds’ daily life. From a distance, one would guess that the whiskered hermit is brown, but through magnification its rainbow shades appear. Its feathers are composed of brilliant shades of green, blue, pink, and yellow—a surprise to the eye.
The temperature of the day has risen and the morning dew has evaporated. The white-whiskered hermit hummingbird is now accompanied by the long-tailed sylph hummingbird, whose green and blue shades cover his entire body and tail. The act of looking out the window has suddenly changed. Taking a deep breath, I hold my binoculars still and record the birds’ usual morning flower dance inside my memory, just like Peter did.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.