(9.3.17) Imagination

The remnants of Hurricane Harvey arrived in Nashville on Thursday, dropping ten inches of rain overnight, spinning off at least two tornadoes, and outmatching the banks of area rivers and creeks. We’ve had a surprising amount of rain this summer, but Harvey was a shock here in landlocked Tennessee. Rain was coming in through the tops of our bedroom windows, so my husband and I spent a good part of the evening moving furniture, tying back curtains, and setting lasagna pans on ladders to catch the blasting water. Even with tornado sirens going off for hours, I was glad we didn’t have a basement to fill up with rain.

Out in the pollinator garden, the young hummingbird who has claimed our feeder kept steadfast watch over his own personal nectar source. Even when the rain was blowing horizontally, he clung to his perch and simply shook off the raindrops from time to time, shivering and ruffling his tail feathers. Male ruby-throats don’t have that tell-tale scarlet gorget until their first winter, so I know this territorial fellow is really only a fledgling who hatched last spring. He has never attempted the long journey across the Gulf of Mexico himself, and no hummingbird lore has told him to fatten up for the coming migration. The days are shorter now and the slant of light is changing, and so his tiny body has signaled him to feed as often as he can. One day soon he will start flying south. I hope he doesn’t encounter any more hurricanes along the way.

I don’t tend to anthropomorphize the creatures in my yard—partly because I find their alien ways so interesting, and partly because thinking of them in human terms only makes the constant tragedies feel more tragic—but it can be hard for me not to see them as metaphors. Last week I watched that young hummingbird hunched down in a cold rain, resolute and undefeated, preparing in his unconscious way for a journey whose dangers he can’t predict, and I thought, “I should be more like that.” And then I thought, “Stop it. Nature is not a sermon.” What I imagine happening in the minds of the creatures in my yard is only and always merely an act of imagination. I try hard to remember that.

On Friday morning, though, I opened the newspaper to find a front-page story about the wildfires that engulfed East Tennessee last fall. A newly released federal review had identified a calamitous failure of imagination as a chief reason for the fire’s deadly magnitude: “It was simply impossible for the park and first responders to imagine and react to this combination of conditions,” said the Joe Stutler, the wildfire expert who led the review.

Suddenly I understood: imagination isn’t necessarily a wrong-headed way to encounter nature. I took my cup of coffee to the window, where a steady rain was still blowing. The little hummingbird sat unmoved at his perch.