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Published: Wed Apr 15 1981
Eva LundsagerUnder Constant Still (detail), 2017–2021, oil on canvas

It bothered her that she didn’t know anything about hummingbirds. She was aware of this as she watched the first one she had ever seen. It was feeding from a red hibiscus in the garden of the vacation cottage she had just rented. The bird was much smaller than she would have thought, more like an insect. And it fluttered its wings so fast it made her feel out of breath.

She tried to remember if hummingbirds ate insects; and if it was true that they never rested, but lived all their lives on the air. And, if it was true, did they have a short life span? One season? Or two?

She also didn’t know anything about hibiscus. She knew that it bloomed in many colors, and that there were even hibiscus societies—but she didn’t know what these societies did. And why was red hibiscus so common? And did more than one color ever grow on a single bush (that is, if it were a bush, and not a tree)? Then she wondered what the plural of hibiscus was. Hibisci, she decided with uncertainty.

Hummingbirds and hibiscus. She didn’t know anything about either of them. And it seemed to her that she should have picked up some information, somehow, somewhere.

She thought of people she had met in the past, who seemed to know everything, and wondered how they had accumulated so many facts. Did they make a special effort to store information and squirrel away data? Or did it just come naturally, like being able to sing, or play the piano by ear? It fascinated her that so many people could quote authors, recite dates, and remember details about countries they’d never even seen. And she always felt envy for people who remembered the lyrics to old songs.

While she was thinking this she turned away from the garden and stared down at her breakfast tray. The green platic tray was like an open book, confronting her with her own ignorance. Did bone china have anything to do with bones? And why was china china?

So, sitting there on the first morning of her vacation, she felt as if she didn’t know anything.


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