to the very boundary
of her leap-ability
caught that red ball.
to the very boundary
of her leap-ability
caught that red ball.
A week after my first visit to the National Aquarium, I sat waiting on a bench across from the staff entrance. I had a 10:00 invitation issued by Ken Howell, curator of the Tropical Rainforest, to “see behind the scenes.” I sat in the shadow of this imposing glass building and felt the weight of the World War II submarine Torsk, with its frightening toothy grimace, and The Chesapeake, an historic bay ship, behind me. The sign, “Amazing Things Happen” flapped above on a banner and another, on a fixed sign, signaled “Immersion Tours.” How could a day begin more propitiously?
Gifts: I figure I must open to them if I am to have a rich life and attend to them if I am to have a deliberate life and pass them on if I am to live a gracious life. I don’t, always, but this gift landed graciously in my lap and now I’m compelled to try to deliver it forward, even though my knowledge of biology remains shallow at best. I enjoy imagining that that is the message of the Motmot, the bird I’ve pictured here, a name always repeating and unforgettable: Come back again and again. See and learn something new every time. And in the call of the Screaming Piha: live every juicy morsel of this life and at the absolute top of your lungs.
Those poison dart frogs had intrigued me, so Ken took me first to the tanks where the team is nurturing them. I’d been confused that the frogs I’d thought I’d seen earlier didn’t match the pictures I found online. It turns out that these guys come in many colors: greens and reds and yellows stripe their bodies like a schoolyard of children. They show curiosity when I come close, then go about their business on twigs and leaves. Their tanks are labeled so that the nurturers know who is who, dates of birth, types, names. I learned that a couple of the species take their tiny hatchlings way high to a bromeliad where its leaves hold rainwater that will be the tadpoles’ home until they grow their limbs. The mother feeds them her unfertilized eggs twice each day until they grow large enough to climb out on the leaf’s edge and begin their adult lives. In other, smaller, tanks live the groceries that nourish others: tiny crickets and fruit flies and insect larvae serve as food for the dart-frog family. I watched a woman sorting and managing in whatever way that serves the breeding and keeping of these food sources. A volunteer, she comes twice each day to serve the critters in this area. Devotion, for frog and human, it seems, requires twice a day attention and plenty of work.
I was struck again and again by the labels on all the pens and tanks back in the workings of the aquarium. For each one, a name, a history. Birds, frogs, fish. A female piha peered down from a limb in a big wire cage. “She’s been annoying her husband,” Ken said. “She’s been attacking him, in fact. We thought we’d give him a few days of rest from her.” He seemed to be gossiping about his neighbor.
We talked about the way we think about the animal kingdom, as individuals or as groups. Should we name the calf? Should we attach ourselves to the apparent affection of the ray? Many biologists believe firmly that we should not think of animals as we think of humans. They are their own kind. Yet, we see connections and similarities everywhere we come in contact with animals, no matter how exotic, slithery, ferocious, or adorable. We hunger. We need mates. We fear. We desire comfort and shelter. We live only a little while, with jobs to do while we live. And now and then, we connect with a species not our own. Now and then a line is breached and we touch. Not unlike, on another plane, we connect with grace people we’ve always thought were exotic, slithery, ferocious, or simply adorable. We find that they are more.
When Ken sent out a notice a while back that Rapunzel, the two-toed sloth who had been at the aquarium for some thirty years, had died, notes of grief arrived from staff members by the numbers; grown adults cried.
We stepped through heavy doors and across shallow puddles and around cylindrical tanks to observe the clown fish and the spikey cardinal fish, an endangered group, and the yellow tang and all their cousins. If I learn a name or two each time I visit, it will be progress. Names connect us. We notice what we can call by name.
We went another way and peeked in on the puffins, up close and personal, from our place behind the scenes.
At the South Pacific coral reef, the calciferous matter that binds a reef spread even to the pipes and floors behind the tank. Nature and its critters will have their way—if we connect, care, and help them. If we realize that if they are endangered, we are endangered–each individual of us.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore unfolded its treasures gradually as we followed its graceful architecture from level to level, up escalators and around curves, lights dancing like sun through water, seeking directions to jellies and then sharks, but often floating astray and finding what we hadn’t known to seek. The structure is, indeed, designed to take us to an unaccustomed, and by most, unexplored part of our planet, the world under water and the world that reaches far above us into a tropical canopy of trees. Both worlds hold secrets only the expertly trained are deciphering, foreign to most of us. And yet: all akin.
I could speak on and, at last, annoyingly on, about the endearing, lovely eyes of the sea bass against the glass, searching, it seemed for open seas; and oh, those of a ray, billowing as it swam, then coming back, again and again, to gaze at me, its little mouth like mine, like a baby’s, its eyes making such direct contact with mine I felt undeniably connected, some emotion quivering between us. Anthropomorphizing, I’m told, is an error, and it wasn’t that. It was recognition of common beginnings and common needs and maybe just common being. Maybe just having taken time to look, maybe that’s all, because only by looking at individuals do we see them. “Sea-life” or “fish” or “people” are not terms that endear and engender respect. One fish, one person, one crocodile on a rock, looking out from his worry or curiosity at me is an individual, like me.
Such an individual, a volunteer guide, materialized at the top floor of the canopy of the tropical rain forest. Think how many people we might know as individuals, and indeed, guides, if we only stopped to talk; and we do that as tourists taking advantage of another’s passion. With a casual acquaintance, even one I admire and like greatly, I often fail to discover what one thing makes her or his heart beat faster. With this man, a badge identifying him as Ken, it was not the case. He began slowly, wondering if he might be able to pinpoint the whereabouts of the noisy bird that had claimed our attention. I listened to him at first as background music, then, as he searched the trees, I began to search, too, although spotting birds has never been a skill of mine. “We’ll see him in a minute: it’s the Screaming Piha. It takes a bit of patience,” he said. And I thought, patience, and reminded myself to slow down, rest, and remember that I had nowhere I had to be but here and present. Patience doesn’t come easily to me. A museum, which an aquarium is, is not meant to be a set of tasks. It is a place to be.
While waiting for the elusive Screaming Piha to appear, now that we had turned to this quiet guide, we enjoyed seeing a bright red-capped cardinal; the surprise of a Paradise Tanager, vivid blue, whose primary colors unfolded like a hand of cards when he flew above us; a scarlet ibis in flight, my very first sighting of this startling bird; a Motmot, its name alone a cheerily descriptive poem; the Linne’s 2-toed sloth high up and immobile; the lovely Sunbittern, who our helper said would soon come to the little flowing stream among the roots and vines downward from us, and did, showing off, drinking and wading and twisting its graceful neck.
“Look,” there’s the screamer we were looking for, the Piha.” By now, we knew that Ken’s wife and he had been volunteers at the aquarium for fifteen years, that they gardened at their home in a suburb of the city, that their neighbors attracted birds to multiple feeders but that this couple dared not feed the birds because of their sly cat, and that they rotated to various parts of the aquarium for every shift so that they remained fresh and interested. I couldn’t imagine this man not finding interest in one spot no matter how long he stayed there.
“I’ll show you something wonderful,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll find them. I never knew they were here until I was shown just a few weeks ago. They’d been here all the time.” Ken took us down to the next rocky level of the rain forest. I sensed his excitement as he looked, adjusted his eyes, and found his strawberry poison-dart frogs. Then we acclimated our eyes, looked where he pointed, and saw these tiny red denizens on the rocks and thin branches. Then, in the dim light, they merged with the moist leaves and twists of twigs and disappeared again into their hidden lives.
These are the things that make Ken’s heart beat faster: not just the equations for discovering the unknown, but also those for sharing the space of discovery—not the aquarium space, but the personal space. What appears to give him greatest pleasure is the making, in a willing participant, a tiny spot of curiosity and the road of patience that rewards it.
Soon, he let us go as quietly and easily as he’d engaged us as he turned to a boy with his head upturned looking at or for something he hadn’t yet found, and a conversation began, and we wound our way down toward the sea creatures and reefs again and the door that led back out to the world of sidewalks and cafes and a good coffee. An osprey circled in the harbor and the gulls fussed and screamed and we noticed.
Fell’s Point is sunny and warm this morning. Water taxis are running, people are jogging, shop and pub and restaurant doors stand open, and the ducks….Oh dear: so much flapping and quacking and fighting: these goings-on are hardly fit for print. So many drakes, so few susies. But the species goes on.
And this city? How does it go on? A dozen blocks away, that same sun glints off an assault weapon, a helmet, and protective gear.
Yes, here on the harbor we can pay attention to the beautiful day and to the ducks, but I cannot be committed to posting observations about our year in Baltimore and fail to address the turmoil that characterizes this city at present. In our relatively safe neighborhood, the flapping and quacking of human tongues, including mine, as we absorb the constant news, turns my attention to the loaded weight of words. “Don’t take anything for granted,” my grandmother told me. That is especially true, and especially in tumultuous situations, of the way we use language.
Language, the way a word twists around between speaker and receiver, is the mover and the beginning of solutions in the Baltimore troubles. The inciting incident was the evident abuse by policemen that caused Freddy Gray’s death. But one incident unveils multiple issues of the city’s attention to recruitment and training of policemen, of attention to depressed, overlooked neighborhoods; to jobs; to education; to kindness. And language is the tool of commitment, the tool of union, the inciting force for change. Yet it can, when different groups understand words differently, form a blockade to progress.
Language can soothe or hurt, and often, because of our various histories and experiences, we ascribe different meanings and connotations to words. “Thugs” is a word I am ashamed of having used to describe looters and car burners and window smashers. I think of a “thug” as a rough person, likely to misbehave, especially with rough treatment of others and by committing petty crimes; as one looking to cause trouble or break the law. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word as “a violent person.” Its history, from the Sanskrit is “swindler, thief” from “he who covers or conceals.”
I think these definitions, and my own understanding, speak to personal characteristics and are different from “acting” or “reacting” like a thug. No matter what history the people who destroy stores and steal merchandise and burn automobiles come from, they are reacting to a bad situation in a criminal way. I’ve been reminded that destruction of property has always been a part of reform as a last resort. It certainly forces attention and achieves the desired result of gaining a much wider audience for much wider issues. Are the perpetrators “thugs”? Maybe not, but the looters acted like thugs and I have my doubts about their political motives when they stole millions of dollars of inventory from a shopping mall and a drug store which had been serving their needs. So, shall I stand by my characterization? A discussion on NPR has made me understand that the answer is “No.” In the culture of Freddy Gray’s neighbors, the word is highly offensive.
Even if I view such behavior as exploitation of an event rather than a political statement, I know that in order for diverse people with diverse agendas to come together for the betterment of conditions, I must, and all must, measure the effects of words. Above all, I must say again and again words like “human being,” “mother,” “father,” “child,” “compassion,” and “love.” Language is the symphony that plays the complex motifs and themes of our lives, and I vow to listen first and listen better and then seek to speak a note that can be heard.