Book Review: Flight of the Hummingbird by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Every individual, no matter how small or inconsequential that individual may seem, has the power to make a difference in the lives of others and to make positive changes occur on the largest scales.

This is the message in Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. The author takes a story from the Quechuan people of South America about Dukdukdiya, a fearless little hummingbird who tries to put out a fire in the Great Forest one drop of water at a time. While the other animals stand at the Forest’s edge, afraid and confused and hopeless, Dukdukiya tirelessly picks up droplets of water in an effort to save her and her companions’ home. Rather than give up like the others, and despite her diminutive physical form, her heart shows its grandness as she does what no one else will. “I am doing what I can,” she says.1

Along with this wonderful, touching folktale, Yahgulanaas provides illustrations in the traditional Haida Manga style. In evocative red and black colors, his depictions of the animals and habitat capture both your eye and the wildness of the animals. Although not true-to-life renderings by any means, Yahgulanaas’s stylized renderings seem to express the “spirit” of the creatures, adding great life and strength to the story itself. This fantastic artwork almost literally comes alive, too, in the animated video on the publisher’s website.

Flight of the Hummingbird also contains contributions from Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Kenya who started the Green Belt Movement to plant trees across the country, and the Dalai Lama. Their pieces, with several other sections, help to place the story within the context of environmentalism more directly. I was particularly struck by the Dalai Lama’s discussion of “Universal Responsibility,” such as when he says, “…the environment does not need fixing. It is our behavior in relation to it that needs to change” (47-48). And like Dukdukdiya the hummingbird, he believes that we “must go forward with a single-minded devotion in spite of the obstacles” once we set our minds on achieving some goal (48).

The story of Dukdukdiya, the message of individual power and responsibility and compassion, truly comes at an important time. We hear so often that we need to change our lives, so it may start to sound like we are getting browbeaten and attacked rather than being motivated to do what we can and should to protect the Earth. When we read about Dukdukdiya putting forth all her energy to save the Great Forest from the flames, it becomes clear that little actions can be effective…especially if all the other animals are doing nothing to pitch in and help!

However, you may be asking yourself a couple of questions about Flight of the Hummingbird.

Who should read this book? Ostensibly, young children make the most fitting audience for the story of the big-hearted hummingbird and her valiant efforts to save the Great Forest. The illustrations surely will stir their imaginations, just as the story’s message can teach them about responsibility, stewardship, and positive effort–whether that be for the environment or for any important cause. But adults, too, can benefit both from the story and from the additional material. It is so easy to fall into the blame game, to feel that individual efforts have no value, and to forget what the ultimate stakes are–our very home. So the book offers yet another perspective on the environmental crusade to “do all we can” for the Earth.

Should this book have been published? Given the fact that books require trees, can publishing such a small book (you can read the whole thing in about half an hour) be justified–even if it is printed on 100% post-consumer materials, like all of Greystone Books’ titles? Could it not have been just as effective if kept as an online publication? I cannot really answer this set of questions. But I will say that this slim little volume is, like Dukdukdiya, more valuable and powerful than its size suggests. The text and the illustrations, with the attractive overall design, make it more of a work of art than a simple book. It is something I think surely would be worth saving, revisiting, exploring, and passing on to future generations. So I would rather see books like this getting published rather than junk mail, catalogues, and what not that have no inspirational potential whatsoever.

The story of Dukdukdiya, like Flight of the Hummingbird telling and portraying that story, truly reminds us of what you could call “the Hummingbird Effect”: Everyone has the power and the responsibility to do all that one can. Only then, drop by drop by drop, may we put out the many fires threatening our lives.

Image credit: Jonathan Rodgers at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Yahgulanaas, Michael Nicoll. Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment. Vancouver: Greystone Books-Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 2008. 30.

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