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.