It is perhaps fortuitous that as I finished John Dunn’s ‘The Glitter in the Green’ I should have heard at the open window both the roar of traffic on the M1 and the sound of blackbirds on the trees outside. The encroachment of man on the natural world and the devastating impact we are having on our environment is an issue that is as much at the forefront of this book as the beautiful hummingbirds we meet along Dunn’s travels through the Americas.
Inspired as a young boy by an exhibit at the Natural History Museum of hummingbirds that was possibly created by curator William Bullock, the writer’s fascination, and admiration in describing both the resilience and fragility of these birds made me as a reader completely absorbed within the text and desirous to learn more about them. It was fascinating to learn that “most hummingbirds will die in their first year. Those that survive the trials of early life can expect an average lifespan of just three to four frenetic years.” The expansion of energy required to feed and the speed at which some species can fly was also something to admire and marvel at.
Even amidst the beauty, Dunn writes that these birds live “precarious, seasonal existences on the knife edge frontier that is Alaska.” There is always danger lurking. The book is a timely warning of just how much hummingbirds, as well as thousands of other species, are being pushed to the brink of extinction because of mankind’s need to consume. These unsettling truths are described in an unsettling way in the book. At one point climate change is described as “acting like a bored child with a magnifying glass on a long hot summer’s day, wreaking havoc where it ought not to be.” The heat that Dunn describes in Alaska at the start of the book is illustrative of the fact that climate change is with us now and no longer exists as an ominous warning of what potentially might occur in the future. It also highlights the unease, both ecological and political, in some of the countries in South America such as Brazil and Bolivia where birding, something that should be seen as none threatening is met with suspicion and hostility.
The book also provided interesting insights into people both present and past who have a connection with hummingbirds. The remarkable figure of Anne Labastille – an ecologist who documented the natural world, chartered climate change, and lived in isolation for decades is someone I would love to find out more about. A figure who accurately predicted, “the excesses of humanity are inescapable and will come to find us.” The documentation of species already lost to time due to being hunted and habitat lost also felt quite bleak: passenger pigeons, Carolina Parakeets and Ivory Billed Woodpeckers no longer exist and gone forever.
Despite these warnings and contemplations, the book is a joyous one. The birds themselves are vivid and full of character. They shine off the page in full colour and it is hard not to be swept up in the writer’s desire to witness them in the wild. His observations of the Marvellous Spatuletail and Velvet-purple Coronet were filled with elation and made me completely envious not to have experienced these creatures myself. There were moments of humour such as the mention of finding bears on the trail in Alaska and there were also moments of hope. Individuals who were giving their life in the preservation of hummingbirds. It seems the fate of these birds has always been extrinsically linked with our own and this book works to highlight the need for compassion and awareness of our natural world. It is a book that is richly knowledgeable and incredibly researched, a fascinating exploration that I will, no doubt, return to.