Brian Doyle's Joyas Voladoras.
Originally published in The American Scholar and collected in the Best American Essays 2005, it's an unassuming little piece. Barely three pages long, it details the beautifully tragic life of the hummingbird, those stunning, flitter-fluttering creatures that seldom live past two years old.
Very few of my students see the point in the essay right away. There's a lot of scientific, naturalistic talk through the piece. Doyle talks about the size of a hummingbird's heart, and most of the time, that's what my students automatically believe the essay is solely about. He lists the different types of hummingbirds that can be found in the Americas, their names as lush and colorful as the actual birds themselves. From "violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs" to "rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds," Doyle spares the reader no expense with names that aren't loaded with hyperbole. These are actual creatures.
The essay heartbreakingly explains how these gorgeous little wonders fade quickly, their humming and buzzing silenced in such a short amount of time. That their speed and lust for life cuts their time on Earth short, and the piece leaves you wondering... is this essay really about a bird? Or something more?
"The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old."
It's expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Clearly Doyle has stopped talking about birds, and is now talking about people.
When I first read this essay, it was after one of my many flea-market-book-shopping sprees. I sat in my living room, surrounded by my various finds, exhausted and sweating from lugging sacks of books from Eastern State Penitentiary to my apartment in Rittenhouse Square. Sure, it's a distance of only 2 miles or so, but with 20 - 30 pounds of books, it gets pretty tiresome, pretty quick. I was burnt out, worn down, another day of sacrificing myself for something, that I believe, is a little greater. Doyle's words blew me away, and spoke to, what I hope, is my character, and the personality traits I believe everyone should have.
Live life fast. Chase after what you want. Make ridiculous and ultimately foolish-spur-of-the-moment decisions. Be spontaneous. Burn the candle at both ends, and to hell with how exhausted you are the next morning. Have that extra shot of whiskey, screw needing a chaser. Fall in love quickly. Never fear the consequences. Don't be, NEVER BE, the tortoise. Enjoy every single one of those two billion heartbeats, friends.
I know I will.
Cause I'm a God damn hummingbird.
As of this posting, you can read the full essay on this student's blog, but who knows how long it'll actually be there. Read it, and take Doyle's lesson to heart.
Throughout Brian Doyle’s essay, Joyas Voladoras , he constantly transitions between subjects like that of the hummingbird and whale and that of the human world, creating a link between these separate lives, stating, “Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have mitochondria in their heart muscles – anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. They price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures more than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine” (Doyle 147). Doyle starts off the passage talking about hummingbirds, yet he slowly and furtively transitions to a more scientific meaning using aspects of the human world to illustrate his argument. He goes on to describe the “metabolism” of