At 88 years old, John looked at the white-tailed deer bounding away with joy and wonderment and said “Look some, some, some brown thing!”. This coming from an expert deer biologist who knew their biology, physiology, dentition, antler sizes, and taxonomy. Yet, age had moved the bounding mammal from detailed identification-to deer-to animal- to brown thing. Age and mental decline had stripped away the biological framework but importantly, had removed none of the joy, interest and wonder of the leaping “brown thing”.
There is a lesson there. Maybe the very appeal that draws us to architecture, music, birds, cars, or cooking is at the heart of the matter, not the deep understanding of their specifics. It has taken me a long time to even consider this. My dog has been a big help though.
Dogs are some of my better teachers. The bumper sticker wisdom holds “Lord, please let me become the person my dog thinks I am”. Roxy is comfortably obsessed with the immediate, the present, the scents, movement, food, and conditions occurring moment to moment. She lives fully in the present. Oh, in her deepest slumber, she may leg twitch and whimper over recollecting a rabbit chase or a swim and she clearly remembers that certain boots mean a walk, but mostly, she seems to be in the moment. She does not seem to worry much about the future unless she is hungry; doesn’t dwell on the past when awake either. She is happy even as she ages, the utter joy of a swim, a retrieve or a piece of bacon at nose length is completely all encompassing and undiminished. I know there are lessons there for me on how to live fully without letting the little nuisance voice in my head redirect great times into dark times.
What can I take away here? Like John, I have spent my formative years in the study of the bird, mammal, tree and soil details as I tried to make sense of my beloved environment. I cataloged scientific names, ranges, habitats, formation and any other way to gain some sense order and control as well as a way to “own” this information and present it to a generation of students. At one time I could identify every resident species of bird in Louisiana, give the correct Latin name of over 100 southern trees and identify every North American mammal larger than a softball. Oddly, over the years, my encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife has somewhat taken precedence over the awe, mystery and even curiosity. For North America, I had most of the big pieces committed to memory like a massive trivia game. Unlike the squeals of discovery from kids seeing their first bald eagle, salmon or red fox, I tend to nod in recognition, and confirm the pre-acquired knowledge with a certain contained smugness.
Yet, as I file it away, and proceed to the next widget of recognition am I stripping away the emotional gift of elation and allowing the hyper-rational and dispassionate to relegate wildlife encounters to stamp-collecting? Nothing against philately but isn’t this just another Cartesian step toward co-modifying wildlife to a human-created value set? Does the biological mind take total command and define the value instead of truly being present with an experience we can never fully internalize?
By naming, studying, memorizing and having the frequent meeting, have I re-relegated them from wonderment to the dusty familiar of a categorized name and. . . well, I have diminished the encounter from something dynamic and wild to a confirmatory check box? Have I turned some of the most beloved topics in my life from Technicolor to monochrome?
Now, things get really dicey. Is there a risk of doing the same thing with interpersonal relationships? How do we avoid the trap of never deviating from the “done thing”, you know, those well-mannered and defensible actions that are scrubbed of genuine emotion? Who wants a friend or life partner who is a Jeeves to meet their instrumental needs? One of my wilder brothers likes to say “The well-behaved child never screwed the cook” and “Caution never fucked a pig”. Yikes! I feel positively milk toastish around such free spirits. No, what we need is to wade into the messy and uncertain quagmire of baring souls and asking hard questions that can only come up within a trusting relationship.
My detailed notes of blood pressure, contraction intervals, pulse rates, placenta ejection and oxygen saturation during Naomi’s childbirth would have seemed to constitute an excellent birth story record that would stand up to any cross-examining lawyer, but she calmly and accurately informed me, “THAT is definitely NOT my birth story”. True that.
Another biological metaphor fits here: As the director of a botanic garden, I oversaw ¼ acre of greenhouses. Plants grown in those protected boxes of light were lush, tall, well watered and fertilized. I thought they were thriving until they fell over with broken stems. It seems that in the absence of wind, stem flexing never stimulated stem strengthening thereby leaving them tall and lush but weak-stemmed. Adversity was necessary and an oscillating fan was all they required. Breast-heavy and leg breaking chickens at 10 weeks old; wasp-waisted muscle men; and fat-tired Volkswagon hotrods retrofitted with V-8s suggest similar imbalances. It seems we need the elegant and beautiful to live alongside the trouble and messiness of being human. This seems required to fully grasp gratitude. We can’t run from living an intact and encompassing life and expect that to improve our existence. The whipped cream on a latte is not the whole drink.
So my new year’s resolution is to look harder at the wholeness of birds, dogs, and loved ones and accept, with more gratitude, the whole package of what truly is and not just what I want to see. This might require some big gulps, some pauses, some work and some reaching for metacognition, but I believe it will pay off by bringing me into the present moment with some new appreciation.
Can a leopard (Panthera pardis — see, there I go again!) change their spots at 66 years old? I don’t know but with enough bleach or hair dye I might be able to escape my spotted past. Bring on 2023!