Where hummingbirds matter

WE know about them . . . the people who matter. Pictures and words tell us that they created, or invented, or saved, or discovered, or worked hard and made it. They're far away from me, as far as I probably am from what my parents thought of when I was born! How far they are from this hillside pasture in Arkansas, how far their feet from mine, crunching now in the midwinter pasture grass. How different it would be if I had gone in another direction, started on another path, directed footsteps on pavement and not on the hillside rocks of the ancient Ozarks.

The cold wind edges under my stocking cap as I take a can of spray paint from my pocket and begin to shake it, first gently so I won't disturb the silence, then more vigorously as I remember the instructions on the can and my purpose today. The pasture is strange to my feet. I've only seen it from the road before, and thought how beautiful it is as it dips and rises toward the horizon. The fields of grass, tall and green when mower and bailer come, are dry and brown now and dotted with clusters of cattle. Each field is bordered with neat fences -- fences banded at mid-height by an intruding extra wire held on each post by a bright red insulator. These are electric fences to remind cattle and people where they belong!

Do I, and others like me, care too much for ourselves? My own life seems in-centered, not out-centered like the lives of the people who matter. Northwest Arkansas doesn't matter at all to most of the world; its life is unknown in Leningrad and Paris and Kampala and Shanghai, and probably even in most of New York City and Los Angeles. I can travel there, but the people who matter wouldn't come here.

My corner of the world has more cows than people and surely more birds. Sometimes I wonder if feeding the birds is a selfish hobby! I love seeing them and enjoy their life, their whir and bustle and calling in my woods. I bring them close to my windows with feeders and we become not-so-distant friends.

I have come to the first fence post and suddenly realize that the lid of the paint can needs a screwdriver to pry it off. What now! The sun is getting low, just the walk took more time than I thought. There is so much fence and my cold hands aren't strong enough. Finally I try kicking at the lid with a boot heel and it works . . . the lid pops off so I can begin to paint, covering each red insulator with shiny black.

Birds are such fun, even the feisty hummingbirds darting at one another around the feeder, attracted by the red plastic cups dispensing sweetened water from the jars I hang. Hummingbirds come to red naturally because it is a flower color, and when the red is an electric fence insulator, the result can be deadly.

The wind is dying down and I am now being followed by a herd of cows. Probably they are only curious. When I phoned the farmer to ask permission to paint the red insulators on his fences, he didn't say, ``Watch out for the cows!'' He was very nice, too busy and too concerned with big things to worry about hummingbirds.

I read that the hummingbirds we see here in the summer come from South America -- far away, even they have seen more of this world than I.

Spray and walk, spray and walk. The rays of the sun are turning gold and the shadows of the fence posts are long against the grass. I hope the cows stay a distance away. I can't climb the electric fence, and there is no way out until I get back to the gate.

The sun is on the horizon as I finish, still thinking about people who create, or invent, or save, or discover, and work hard and make it. The last insulator is now a safe, quiet black, and as I look back over the hills I have covered, I see my own shadow, yards long on the golden brown grass. Radine Trees Nehring

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