Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Taking Inspiration from Hummingbirds

Aug 12, 2017 by Julia L F Goldstein

On my trip to Vancouver, BC earlier this summer, I made a point to notice materials. Since one aspect of the visit involved conducting an interview for the book I’m writing on sustainable materials, this seemed appropriate. I also took time to be a tourist. While browsing the gift shop at the Capilano Suspension Bridge, a collection of earrings caught my eye. Although I own plenty of earrings – at least 25 pairs – I decided I had to buy these. They advertise being made from lead-free pewter and handcrafted in Canada, and the hummingbird is supposedly a symbol of good fortune. How could I not buy them?

I have previously written about lead contamination in water, and one of the chapters in my book is called “Getting the lead out.” I hadn’t previously thought much about pewter, a metal alloy consisting primarily of tin. Did ancient pewter drinking vessels contain lead? Yes. I don’t have space here to go into controversies about the impact of lead poisoning on the Roman Empire. Suffice it to say, Roman water pipes and drinking vessels did contain lead, and probably in quantities sufficient to cause lead poisoning.

Modern pewter drinking vessels, at least those produced in Western countries, are free of lead and have been for many decades. Britannia pewter, invented in England in the 18th century, is an alloy of tin, copper, and antimony and is harder than earlier pewter alloys that contained lead. Its hardness allows it to be rolled and formed into complex shapes rather than merely cast into molds, reducing the cost of pewter items. Pewter for food usage today is based on britannia pewter, containing at least 92% tin, 6 to 7.5% antimony, and the balance copper.

Companies that sell pewter mugs and tankards promote the material as being superior to glass or stainless steel for drinking beer. Pewter has been called “poor man’s silver” because, while tin is less expensive than silver, pewter vessels have a similar shine to that of polished silver. Pewter has the advantage of not tarnishing like silver or potentially corroding like stainless steel. As for preferring pewter to glass for drinking beer? I’m not convinced.

Pewter jewelry, like pewter drinkware, contains antimony and copper to increase hardness and durability. The alloy remains soft enough to be formed into elaborate designs but hard enough not to be easily damaged. Only low grades of pewter for jewelry contain lead, so the claim on my hummingbird earrings does not make them unusual. Had I bought earrings without such a claim, they probably would also have been lead-free.

Why hummingbirds? I happen to like them. On my first weekly nonfiction book writing meetup after the trip to Vancouver, I wore the earrings and shared the story. Some members declared the hummingbird to be my “spirit animal.” I don’t really believe in those types of things, but I did some research and gleaned a few insights.

The message of the hummingbird is that “the sweetest nectar is within,” a reminder to appreciate our own abilities rather than relying on external validation. That is advice I can use.

Some hummingbirds migrate thousands of miles every year, a remarkable achievement given their size. Like the hummingbird, I am petite and persistent, suggesting that taking inspiration from the hummingbird is not a bad idea. When I concentrate my energy in a positive direction rather than waste it on pursuits that do not either further my goals or give me joy, I become the best version of myself. That is all anyone can hope for.