August 22, 2012

Action, Responsibility, Empathy: Flight of the Hummingbird. ~ Isaac Yuen.

I was introduced to Flight of the Hummingbird during the first residency of my Master’s program in Environmental Education and Communication. A parable inspired by the Quechan people of Ecuador, the thin tome serves as a powerful and moving call for environmental action.

Illustrated with Michael Nicoll Yahngulanaas’ distinctive Haida manga artwork, Flight of the Hummingbird resonated with many of my fellow colleagues. By the end of the residency, our class had adopted the hummingbird as our unofficial mascot. The ideas found within Hummingbird have stayed with me ever since, continually shaping my thoughts on the nature and efficacy of environmental action.

The story begins with the Great Forest catching on fire, and the animals within it fleeing for their lives. All save one. Dukdukdiya, the tiny hummingbird, would not abandon the forest. She flies to the stream, picks up a single drop of water, and drops it on the raging fire. Again and again she continues her efforts against the inferno at great personal risk. The other animals watch on the outskirts, warning Dukdukdiya of the dangers; they lament that there is nothing they can do in such a situation. Dukdukdiya listens but continues her task. Finally, the bear, one of the biggest creatures in the forest, asks her what she hopes to accomplish. The story concludes with this final sentence:

Without stopping, Dukdukdiya looked down at all of the animals. She said, “I am doing what I can.”

The Great Forest as the Earth

In many cultures, hummingbirds not only symbolize courage in small packages, but also wisdom. One possible motivator for Dukdukdiya’s selfless action is that unlike the other animals, she has the gift of foresight. She desperately attempts to save the forest because unlike the other animals, she recognizes that there is no future without it. While other animals flee to save themselves for the present, they do not realize that without the Great Forest, there is no hope for their future survival. The forest is the only home they have.

The world as the Great Forest. Image by author.

One could interpret the Great Forest as the Earth. It is the foundation which all of our cultures, societies, and economies rely upon. But much like in Hummingbird, this foundation is being threatened; the real life version of the terrible fire takes on the forms of runaway climate change, rampant biodiversity loss, toxic pollution, and resource exhaustion. Continuing with the status quo and watching from the sidelines will inevitably lead to catastrophic damage to the very life-support networks that we rely on.

Like most parables, Flight of the Hummingbird is not subtle in its takeaway message: As individuals, we must do what we can to make a difference. Green Belt Movement Founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, author of the foreword, wrote that Hummingbird is a story of individual empowerment, of being committed to making a difference, and of not being cynical in the face of overwhelming odds. Like Dukdukdiya, human beings are given the gift of foresight. We must use it to protect what we have, because individuals, communities, and nations all suffer in an ecologically degraded world.

Of Universal Responsibility

The afterword by the Dalai Lama provides an interesting glimpse into his view on the ecological crisis. To him, humanity’s exploitative attitude towards nature stems from ignorance, greed, and a lack of respect towards the natural world. He emphasizes the unique position of our species, as part of nature and also apart from it. As such, he states that we have a twofold responsibility to the world:

Morally, as beings of higher intelligence, we must care for this world. The other inhabitants of the planet – insects and hummingbirds and so on – do not have the means to save or protect the world. Our other responsibility is to undo the serious environmental degradation that is the result of incorrect human behaviours (p. 42).

I have heard similar ideas from The Farthest Shore, a story that profoundly influenced my view of humanity’s place in the world. Unlike other species, we can affect things on a global scale. We can visualize the past, present, and future, and as such are capable of understanding cause and effect, actions and consequences. We must exercise wisdom to redress our mistakes of the past, and to act as better stewards for a more sustainable future. The Dalai Lama describes the fundamental ethical obligations to the world as a “universal responsibility”:

This need for a sense of universal responsibility affects every aspect of modern life. Nowadays, significant events in one part of the world eventually affect the entire planet. Therefore, we have to treat each local problem as a global concern from the moment it begins. We can no longer invoke the national, racial, or ideological barriers that separate us without prompting destructive repercussions. (Hummingbird, p. 46)

Last week’s focus at Ekostories on the late Carl Sagan highlighted a similar message, that we must transcend our differences and take better care of ourselves and the world in order to have any hope of a better future. For me, it’s heartening to discover common ground shared by scientific and spiritual leaders. It gives me hope that there truly is a more optimistic and sustainable path forward.

Flight of the Hummingbird ends on an inconclusive note. What happens after Dukdukdiya’s words and deeds? Will the other animals continue to watch on the sidelines and eventually perish without the Great Forest? Or will they act to save the forest despite being uncertain of the effectiveness of their actions? To me, it is all contingent on what lies in the heart of the hummingbird.

Dukdukdiya, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

Of Love, Empathy, and Compassion

Whether we like it or not, we have been born on this earth as part of one great family. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated, belonging to one nation or ideology or another, ultimately each of us is just a human being like everyone else. Furthermore, each of us has the same right to pursue happiness and avoid suffering. When you recognize that all beings are equal in this respect, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them.

Of course, this sort of compassion is, by nature, peaceful and gentle, but it is also very powerful. It is the true sign of inner strength. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need to believe in ideology. In the context of our interdependence, considering the interests of others is clearly the best form of self-interest. All that is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities. (Hummingbird, p. 46-47)

In order to protect the environment, the Dalai Lama notes that one must be internally sustainable and strong, to act with a good heart, and to have compassion for one’s self, for others, and for the world. These elements are not merely fanciful notions, but rather fundamental ingredients for the forging of a more sustainable future.

I am reminded of a Japanese tale titled A Living God by Lafcadio Hearn. In the story, the village elder Gohei senses a danger that no one else can perceive. Having no time to warn everyone in his village, he proceeds to light his own rice fields on fire.  Shocked by the act and driven by the love and respect they had for him, every man, woman, and child in the village rushes to his house on the hill to help put it out.  As they did so, a tidal wave wipes out the entire village, destroying everything but the elder’s house on the hill:

He, their Choja, now stood among them almost as poor as the poorest; for his wealth was gonebut he had saved four hundred lives by the sacrifice. Little Tada ran to him, and caught his hand, and asked forgiveness for having said naughty things. Whereupon the people woke up to the knowledge of why they were alive, and began to wonder at the simple, unselfish foresight that had saved them; and the headmen prostrated themselves in the dust before Hamaguchi Gohei, and the people after them.

The story always served as a powerful personal reminder that every one of the villagers was saved by their compassion, empathy, and capacity to love. As ecologically literate citizens, I believe we must ask ourselves if we have conducted our actions from a place of compassion and empathy towards others. I believe we cannot affect genuine and lasting change through strategies of shame, guilt, and hatred. Instead of pushing people to act, we need to take a different approach and draw them to change.

An Ambiguous Future

To me, I believe the conclusion of Hummingbird represents a crossroad. The fate of the Great Forest hinges on the relationships the hummingbird has forged with her fellow animals. Did the hummingbird cultivate love and garner respect from her fellow animals? If she is “looking down” at the other animals from a sense of judgement, her solitary act of bravado is a futile one: “Doing what I can” comes across as an exercise of moral superiority and self-sacrifice. If her mindset is rooted with the intention of shaming and guilting others into action, her fellow animals will become defensive in their justification for inaction. The future will be bleak, no matter how many drops of water are put on the fire. The mantra of “doing what I can” is ineffectual, and Dukdukdiya herself will either give up in cynicism or burn out and perish.

But if Dukdukdiya has love and compassion of her fellow creatures, if she approaches life with a good heart, with kindness, modesty, and humility, there is a chance that the animals will be drawn by their love for her and the forest into action. “Doing what I can”, in this context, becomes a signal which can drive others to aid Dukdukdiya in her efforts, and in so doing, save the forest and themselves.

Given a choice between the two potential outcomes, I choose the latter.


Yahgulanaas, Michael Nicoll. Flight of the Hummingbird. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2008.

Hearn, Lafcadio. (1896).  A Living God. Retrieved from http://www.inamuranohi.jp/english.html



Isaac Yuen is interested in all things environment. His background is in environmental biology, geography, engineering, education, and communication. Currently an aspiring writer, he is particularly interested in the power of stories to spark environmental connections, awareness, understanding and change in the minds of environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike.

You can visit his exploration of these stories from various mediums weekly at his blog Ekostories: exploring narratives of nature, culture, and self. He currently lives in Vancouver, Canada with his wife, four shrimps, and three snails.

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Editor: Jill Barth

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