When we first got down to Florida, I was as wrapped up in purely human business as any other big-city dweller. Like the businessman on his own asteroid in The Little Prince, adding up numbers and harrumphing, "I am concerned with matters of consequence!" It took more than a week before I began to really notice, as more than just part of the scenery, the other creatures with whom we share the place. Not just to notice them but to wonder about them, and to wonder at how little we really know about them.
Three bottlenosed dolphins came by one sunset, possibly drawn by the local bagpiper who often comes to pipe the sun down, but at least not repelled by his noises. As the bagpipes bawled and people watched from the shore, the dolphins . . . well, likely what they were doing underwater was X-rated (do I remember reading that they mate in threes, with one male holding the female steady for the other?), but at the very least, they were playing madly. All we saw was the occasional tail flukes patting the water, or a dolphin's head and front half propelled languidly into the air, half-erect, and toppling back in. I thought about how amazing it is that we live side by side with these creatures, yet know almost nothing about their lives. As much as they've been studied, the fact is that they live in another medium, which we can't imagine, and we can't ask them, so we remain neighbors but almost total strangers.
As my curiosity about these other creatures began to reawaken from its urban, adult coma, I began to notice that they, in turn, seemed curious about us. We had rented a fat-tired "beach buggy" in which we could wheel my husband down to and into the water; we'd leave it at the water's edge while we floated. Once a snowy egret that was stalking minnows in the shallows walked up to the beach buggy, did a double take, and then inspected it carefully from every angle, tilting its head from side to side, literally poking its beak into the thing, before all but shrugging and walking off. And once while we were having sunset cocktails out in front of the house, a great blue heron landed on the roof and stalked back and forth, eyeing us. It may have been about food; the egret may have wondered whether the buggy was some sort of boat or bait bucket, two objects that have been known to yield fish, and the heron too might have been looking for a handout -- people do feed them. But both birds became still and attentive when you called to them, and they both met your eye, returned your gaze.
Tiny lizards, too, tilt their heads and look up at you when you walk past them, and seem to hear if you talk to them. They don't run away unless you reach for them. There's a certain rudimentary curiosity there, even if it is limited to assessing whether you're a predator -- a great blue heron, perhaps -- or something more like a cow, a beast of ambling indifference.
The legends of many Native American tribes refer to a long-ago time when people talked with the animals. From our perspective, those tribes, in what they considered their lamentably fallen state, did talk to the animals, and observe and interact with them richly. It's fascinating that they already felt estranged. This awareness and curiosity about my fellow creatures feels like a faint, faint stirring of what must once have been a major human preoccupation, touching on both survival and religion. Closer to home, it's a reawakening of a major childhood fascination; I used to sit in the back yard for hours, watching a spider that made a tunnel with a "front porch" leap out and seize any bug that crossed there. (What does it say about me that I love predators the most -- big and small cats, falcons, orcas?) In New York you're pretty much restricted to watching the occasional cockroach drink daintily from a drop of water, antennae waving, like a tiny deer, and feeling a sudden absurd kinship with it, and letting it get away.
The reawakening of curiosity also made me think of Kenneth S. Norris, the UC Santa Cruz natural history professor whom I accompanied with his class on a Sierras field trip and profiled in 1977. For Ken, curiosity was the root impulse of science, and imagination its tool. He told his students to imagine how huge a factor tiny microclimates, cold or warm air currents around a rock or the root of a tree, must be in the life of a beetle. He worked intensively with porpoises, both in the wild and in captivity, knew as much about them as any human, and thought that "What's it like to be a porpoise?" was a valid scientific question. I hadn't communicated with Ken for many years (if I made a list of "ten regrets," like True Ancestor's, one would surely be that I couldn't accept his invitation to come out and teach a course on nature writing at UCSC), so I Googled him, and was terribly sad to learn that he has been dead for seven years. Here is the memorial site that will show you how extraordinarily down-to-earth, inspiring and loved he was. The title of my article was "Professor of Wonderment," and I was pleased to see that that became his unofficial title, if it hadn't been before. His true memorial is that there must be hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who can't wonder about a dolphin, or look a heron or a lizard in the eye, without thinking of him.