Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Hi, there,

It has been a long time since I've written to you, here or otherwise. I've been busy, and I have not known what to say, but still you have been on my mind.

In the month or so so last wrote I have now and again thought of things I wanted to tell you. How the weather was unseasonably wrong in early January, how it chilled up and snowed then, and how the birds crouched on the lip of the feeders in the snow, female finches of some sort, a white streak on their faces near the eye, taking sunflower seeds one by one in their heavy bills. Each one chomped up and down on her seed, cracking the shell, till the shell fell in shards and she swallowed the seed, a uniquely bird method of chewing. How, more recently, the weather has been warming and I'm re-starting my practice of early morning walks, listening in my beginner's ignorance to the conversations of birds. What sounds a bit like the buzz of the teeth of a comb? Or maybe a single note on a kazoo? Bird or bug or something else, two or three of them call from the trees across the road in the evenings. Mornings are arguments among beings with complex, multi-note songs that I'm sure have some sort of mnemonic that I don't know. A great blue heron, and also a group of ducks, flush from the little canal almost every time I go by.

The other day I watched an Attenborough documentary on snakes. I know you are a fellow fan. He has become such an icon, so I'm hardly alone in my devotion, but something in me is always about seven years old again when I watch him.

On this occasion, the documentary began with him watching a small green snake slither along a fallen branch, a gentle, fond wonder shining on his face. Attenborough documentaries all have certain things in common. There's always a focus on species, not ecological patterns and not individual animals. There is usually no human context--you can't tell if he's filming in remote wilderness or seventy-five yards away from a car dealership. There is no narrative. You can't tell how Attenborough got somewhere, or what discovery process his team went through to set up a scene. No other humans appear on camera, but Attenborough himself is almost always there, and he brings the viewer there, too. The illusion of being just out for a walk with him, one on one, is almost total. And there is that fondness that lights him up, this contagious, beatific love for live things. For a snake, for a bird, for some rodent that uses a giant pitcher plants for a toilet, everything alive is just bathed in his fondness. I've seen you light up in a similar way, gesturing excitedly while some feathered live thing gets dizzy in your hand. I saw light first on his face.

What would have become of me if I'd never seen him?

I mean, I watched other documentaries as a kid, but few of them had a person I could identify with as its focus. There was Marty Stoufer, of course, and Jacques Cousteau, and to a lesser extent, George Page, but none of them served as a personal tour guide on camera. None of them role-modeled their relationship to the extra-human world on camera the way he did. I don't know whether I was always going to be an ecology geek, and recognized him as an example of what I could become, or if I became an ecology geek following the example of what I think was the first truly happy adult I'd gotten to know--because when he speaks directly to the camera like that, it's like you know him.

And all of this happened because in the early '80's my Dad decided he had a political problem with commercial television best solved by boycotting it. I'm not sure if he just found the big networks too irritating to watch anymore or if he actually thought his boycott would do anything, but the result was that we watched a lot more documentaries on public television. Including those by Sir David Attenborough.

It's an odd thing that on some level I seem to believe luck can be retroactive. As though one of these days that crucial decision of television won't have happened, and my life as I know it will vanish.

Aside from the flow of causality, the issue is nature vs. nurture. Who would I have been if the events I perceive as formative had happened differently? I used to be preoccupied with events that I thought had shaped me to be unhappy, identifying this or that place where I seemed to be scarred by history. Now I'm preoccupied with what worked, what I wouldn't trade, what I appreciate. This persistent judgment of events I can't now change either way is stupid. Yet I persist in it. A certain tolerance, a certain humor regarding ones' own irrationalities is a necessary form of humility, I think.

Nurture was on my mind not long ago specifically. I'm not sure if you noticed on Facebook, but my Dad has a new book out--not that my Dad is on Facebook, but his publisher is, so I've been treated to splashes of publicity and much-to-do about my Dad every few days. If you haven't noticed, I've been "liking" and "sharing" these things whenever I see them.

Chris and I went to a book signing my Dad did a while back. He read some, his publisher spoke glowingly about his talent and intelligence, people bought books and asked for his signature. My Dad signed each book dutifully with an air of mild surprise, as though he had been quietly minding his business when he was unaccountably accosted by his fans. He didn't seem to mind, he was just puzzled.

You have to understand, my Dad does not toot his own horn. He does not generally acknowledge having a horn. But all those things his publisher said are true. I should know.

-best, C.

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