From the time I was child, I knew my passion.
Growing up in the backwoods of West Virginia is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it assumed by those living outside your native district that you are some sort of savage who cannot use the queen’s English properly, makes regular use of the outhouse, and never wears shoes.
And now it’s mixed up with an assumption that you must have a laundry list of right-wing political views, which I obviously don’t.
But the blessing of having been raised in a part of America that has been left to go wild is that I know what living things are.
My grandmother was an ardent photographer, and one of the earliest photos of me that she took is me standing next to a chipping sparrow chick. The photo shows a half- feathered out chick that had experienced the misfortune of falling out of its mother’s nest. Such a bird’s fate is usually sealed once the long veil of the night descends upon the scene and the various denizens of darkness come to prowl.
But the look on my face shows no knowledge of the horror that will soon come. Three-year-old me is enthralled by it. I guess I had seen so many chipping sparrows fly away from me that I couldn’t help but have my curiosity piqued at this one that simply could not.
I have always been this way. When I was very young, trips to the North Carolina coast would mean my grandparents would take me to the aquarium several times a day. And when a Hereford cow got loose and had her calf by my swing set, my parents told me years later that it “made my day.”
I still felt that passion years later when a big coyote followed one of my golden retrievers out of a thicket. The two canids strolled up to within ten feet of me. When the coyote realized that it had foolishly approached me, it stopped and stared for no more than two seconds before bolting off as it had seen the angel of death. I can still remember those wild amber eyes, their intensity, their intelligence, and their terror. It was a dark gray wild dog, the one so despised by all around me, and yet I felt no hatred toward it.
It was more like awe and reverence.
And to be truly honest, I was more amazed at the European brown hares and rooks that I saw in the hayfields around Stonehenge than the famous pile of rocks itself. I’d only ever read of European brown hares, and to see one in the flesh was oddly cathartic.
My teenage and early adulthood trips to the North Carolina coast weren’t so tied to the aquarium. By that time I’d been given the liberty to wander the beach on my own, and walking just beyond the easily accessed parts of the public beach on this Outer Bank, I was able to wander into a world of shorebirds, gulls, pelicans, dolphins, and ghost crabs. One day on my travels I happened upon a dead pygmy sperm whale that had washed up on the beach. Only a few months before I had read all about these small whales, and as I began to marvel at it, someone asked what kind of whale it was.
And I couldn’t stop myself from answering. I explained what it was and what it ate and its relationship to the cachalot. I can’t remember what I said, but I know I had to have been a better marine biologist than George Costanza.
My passion is what has been called “animate creation,” but as someone who accepts evolution, such a term really doesn’t fit. These are the other beings, our cousins forged just as we were in the long journey of natural selection.
In my secondary education, I forsook my passion to study what was safe. I knew I was never going to be any kind of biologist, so I turned to history and social science.
And did well.
But nothing in the affairs of our own species can bring out my true self in the same way animals can.
Perhaps it is because unlike our kind, they are not sullied with delusions of grandeur or entitlement. They know only to exist and live as their natural history dictates.
And there is something oddly appealing about such an arrangement.
But so outside the grasp of a mere human being.
Our kind truly is cast from the Garden for good, and yet I want to have taste of it, if only for the tiny bit that one can glean from a brief sojourn.
This is what makes me live.
There is a sweetness to it.
If only I could taste more.