… probably fall warbler time. I remember the moist, pungent smell of autumn leaves beginning to decompose on the ground beneath our feet, the golden path layered with their forms. The familiar open woods surround us – exposed gray trunks of various widths against the backdrop of leafy gold, green, orange. A small gurgling brook, mostly hidden by the tapestry of grasses and wetland species alongside, lazily makes its way through a culvert under the path.
It is chilly. I am glad for my hat and gloves.
My dad stops mid-stride, raises his binoculars.
My inexperienced eyes search and search for movement in the tree tops in the direction he is looking. “What is it?” My excited whisper anticipates the information I know he wants to share. (I think I really did want to know what bird it was, as well as to have the rare opportunity for a quiet conversation with him.)
Bird watching early in the morning with my father is a precious memory. I was thrilled when he asked if I wanted to go with him the night before. Yes – it meant getting out of bed particularly early on a non-school day – but I did not mind. Time alone with him was always special.
My father loved birding for the sake of the birds – their beauty in plumage and song, but he was also a scientist, so he would go home after a bird walk and record exactly what he saw, where, and when. Likewise, he recorded flowers, particularly when traveling outside his home territory. Thirty years after his death, I still have a small pile of the large index cards with his meticulous notations: common name, Latin name, place, date, all in his exquisite handwriting. These are from the periodic trips my parents took to the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming.
I suppose there was passion in his work as a nuclear physicist – the minutia of the universe and all, but those parts were pretty much beyond my comprehension, especially at a young age. But his passion for birds, flowers…. those I could understand.
My father worked to preserve open space in the town where we lived. I roamed those open spaces as a child with my parents, then alone when I was a bit older. The woods and fields, more than a setting for my childhood, formed my very being. I always felt at peace with the other inhabitants – animals and plants. I became intrigued – wanting to know more – how they lived, what they did. The ecologist in me was birthed here.
Is this why I do what I do now?
What DO I do now, anyway?
I write, mostly because it helps me think. I think about the more-than-human world and its relationship to the human world. I think about how mending that relationship is now going to take a revolution in our thought processes, a revolution much harder to bring about than any recent policy or technology or regulation. A revolution as critical as anything else we can do to successfully navigate the future for all stakeholders, human and otherwise.
But writing about how off-the-mark the human/other-than-human relationship is now, in light of the climate crisis, is getting very tiring, even as the emergency increases.
I need a course correction of my own.
I spoke once before (Nov, 2020) about the Haudenosaunee Address, the ritual of an Indigenous tribe that had caught my attention after reading about it in Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s brilliant collection of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass. By its daily repetition, respectfully acknowledging and thanking all manner of things from thunder to herbs, a relationship between the human and other-than-human world is affirmed and passed from generation to generation in the hearts of people for thousands of years. Although I will assiduously avoid cultural appropriation, the Address has become emblematic for me. With the possible exception of the scientific community, I have yet to find any other expression that locates the human animal alongside the rest of the created order – with no ranking. And no other expression uses gratitude to secure that relationship.
I will continue to explore and write about the human/other-than-human interface, including discussing why I use “other-than-human” as a designation for everything else. I look forward to learning more about the Address. I also look forward to searching for any other description of the interface that might resonate with that model.
In the meantime, I think back to those mornings with my father. Sure – we were two human beings walking along paths that had been cut into the wooded ecosystem. But never at the expense of the whole. During our walks, I was absorbing from him an intense interest in – and respect for – the diversity of life. Although never explicitly acknowledged, I sensed my father felt at home, belonging to the whole. That sense was nurtured in me and explains why I still write about it.
As I look at his notes, I see the scientist, of course, the careful classification: first the common name (Bluebell), family (Borage) in the right-hand corner, Latin genus (Mertensia) and species (ciliatia) under the common name. But I also sense a person delighted enough by the beauty and awe of the other-than-human world that he took the time to look, learn and acknowledge what he was seeing. Did he give thanks to them? Hmm. Not likely. But he noticed.
And he taught me to notice.