Getting Outside Saturday: Field Notes on My Daughter

categories: Cocktail Hour / Our Best American Essays

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We moved from Cape Cod to Carolina about eight and a half years ago.  I wrote this soon after our first school year in the South ended, when we returned to the Cape in June.  It turned out we weren’t the only ones with a new baby and this is the story of how we interacted with another pair of parents and their off-spring.  It was originally published in the great journal Isotope.  Long may it live! 







1. Fox


During these joyous days back on Cape Cod I am taking field notes on both the local foxes and Hadley.   Hadley is now just over a year old, a completely different animal than the one who moved south: a walking, talking, gesturing hominoid.   Last night she rode my shoulders to the beach, and we found that a fox family had built a den in the seawall rocks.  Hadley pointed at them and said “cat,” the word she is stamping on everything these days.  Still, if her term for them was not entirely accurate, she was close.  The two kits, their legs covered with black stockings, ambled right up to us, and she could barely contain her excitement.  Meanwhile, I tried to maintain my scientific sobriety, taking notes on their black eyes, their white-tipped tails, their foolish trust.        


            Hadley’s physical development, like those of chimps and apes, her closest relations among primates, is relatively slow compared to other animals, these foxes for instance.  In humans, physical growth, height and size, is retarded because time is required for us to learn the complex, symbolic and ever-changing world of our species.   But the mental growth is wild.  You see it in Hadley’s eyes and her hands and in her intense interaction with the physical world.  Not long ago I taught her how to snap, and now she moves around the house going at it like a Beat poet.  Her prose poem of course is made up of that one obsessive word, “Cat,” though she inflects a hundred emotions from the sound.  The other night she woke up from a dream and said quite clearly: “Cat.  A cat.”  The alliterative and vaguely homonymous “Cow” has also leaked out, so you get the feeling that a hundred other words are gathering, readying, almost a cloudburst.   


            Because I have the foxes handy for study, I’ve decided to take out some books and do field work, watching the kits grow.   I’d also like to try to record more exactly and objectively the changes in my daughter as she heads into her second year.  Things happen fast in an infant’s world, and since growth is by definition change it is therefore one of the most stimulating subjects for study (outside, perhaps, birth.)  The human mind, after all, is conditioned for growth—for novelty.  No wonder it’s absorbing to watch an infant turn to toddler and toddler to child.  It holds the same appeal as gambling or drag racing.  We are pre-wired for speed and change.  Taking field notes on a middle-aged man wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. 


            If explosive growth always captures the human imagination, then this is the appeal, not only of childhood, but of this time of year, of the approaching solstice.  Solstice is not just an announcement of summer but also the culmination of spring, and growth is spring’s great theme.  Right now the birds sing before dawn while the cup of the year fills to the brim with green.   Nothing becoming something.  The small blooming large.  Opening.  Bursting.  Overspilling.






2. Toward Solstice


This morning I am down at the rocks at 6 with my coffee.  All four foxes, mother and three kits, gradually emerge from the den.  They gaze at me, curious, with their black eyes.  Apparently I am not perceived as much of a threat for soon they are lazing on the rocks near me while I sip my steaming drink.  They have habituated to me in no time.  We all loll together, the kits resting their heads on their paws.  They scratch their ears, leaving spikes of orange hair standing straight up.  Finally it’s time for exercise and the three kits tear after each other on the sand.  At one point the smallest of the kits decides to play hide and seek.  All I see is two triangular oversized ears behind a beach rock.


            Back at my desk I learn that foxes are, according to my books, “a living symbol of intelligence,” made out in myth to be wily, clever, sly.  This is in part, from our human point of view, because of how difficult they are to trap (though this beach family would make easy prey.)  One book, The World of the Red Fox by the impressively named Leonard Lee Rue the Third, waxes poetic when it comes to the fox’s coat: “Its coat, captured by the sun, takes on the tints and highlights of burnished gold and copper.”  And: “The wind playing in its fur, as if passing through a summer wheat field, causes a constant change in its shadings and hues.  These are subtleties that the eyes can capture but the pen cannot.”  It’s true that watching the rust-colored family on the beach is a little like watching a fire, oranges and reds flickering.  As with all red foxes, the ends of their tails look like they have been dipped in white paint.  Their ears, cheeks, throat and chest are white, too, while the nose, back of ears and their leg stockings are black.   They are also, and I say this as scientifically as possible, unbearably cute.  The main job of a newborn, whether human or not, is to create a deep attachment in the adult, an attachment that motivates the adult to do all the necessary work of parenting, as well as compromise his or her own life.  It turns out that round faces and big eyes do the trick when it comes to creating this attachment.  As Stephen J. Gould, among others, have pointed out, there is an evolutionary advantage to looking like a Disney character.   


            But back to fur.  On the kits and their mother it is luscious, fiery, full.  It also is responsible for the substantial appearance of these small animals.  An adult fox actually weighs less than our cat, Tabernash, a former stray, and only a little more than our old cat Sukie, on average between eight and 11 pounds.  According to Mr. Rue, a fox, once skinned, has a long lean body “like a miniature greyhound” and the “chest is small and can easily be encircled by a man’s hand.”


            I record fox facts in my journal until 11 and then walk downstairs to find Hadley and head back out into the golden age of early June.  We will spend the afternoon on the beach, before heading back home for naps.  Then, when I wake up, I will grill chicken sausages for myself and my wife Nina and drink, I would guess, somewhere between three and five beers.  After that it’s off to sleep early—all in the same bed, still primate-style—so that I can get up before dawn and watch foxes again.  Solstice is only three weeks away.  And this, I tell myself, is not such a bad way to live. 




3. Handy


With so many miracles of growth speeding toward us—the beginnings of language and locomotion to name two—it is easy to forget a more commonplace miracle, the one that helped our ancestors survive the jungle and then far beyond the jungle: hands.  It is this transcendent tool that led to all other tools.   We think that our brains and our words separate us from the rest of the animal world, and it’s true that complex verbal language is our greatest distinction.  But so much starts with hands.  One difference between Hadley and the fox kits is that she “brings her food to her face while they bring their faces to the food.”   True, a raccoon does the same, as well as all her fellow primates, but the ability to hold and study objects, to place and move them, to manipulate the world in subtle ways, was our first great advantage.   How convenient—I’ll resist saying “handy” here—that the same equipment that allowed us to climb trees also had so many other uses once we came down onto the plains. 


            To watch the first year of an infant’s life is to see that hands are our first language.  Not just the Kerouac-like snapping that Hadley accompanies her Cat poems with, but all the gesturing and pointing and handling that have been one of her central preoccupations for the last 12 months.   She has been grasping and letting go for a while and now she is suddenly throwing and switching and turning and flicking.  She is a miniature Houdini, untangling and opening.  These are skills sets she shares with chimps and gorillas, though soon, as the unfolding of language begins, she will put some distance between herself and her fellow primates.  Yes, chimps have been taught sign language, gorilla society is complex and vervet monkeys have different “words” for snake and eagle that come out in their alarm cries.  But what is happening now in the human brain is unprecedented in the animal world and as close to miraculous as anything in nature.  While in some ways I believe that we humans are just another animal, it would be the species-wide equivalent of false modesty not to acknowledge that here is something that makes us remarkable.


            The brain and mouth work wonders, not to mention the frontal binocular (color) vision of our eyes.  But those hands!  Curling, gesturing, cupping, pointing, touching.   In Apes, Monkeys, Children and the Growth of the Mind, Juan Carolos Gomez writes: 


“The decisive evolutionary advantage of primate hands is their versatility…The primate hand is an organ specialized in having a general function—grasping—useful for a variety of adaptive purposes.  The case of the hand illustrates an important feature of the primate order: primates specialize in not being too narrowly specialized!”


            In this way, hands allowed us to become what we are: the great generalists, the great adapters, of the animal world.  But the hands are not only grasping tools:


            “Hands have their own ways of sensing the world: they are equipped with sophisticated organs of touch.  Primate fingers possess highly sensitive tactile pads that provide the brain with precise information about the textures and shapes of objects.”


            So there it is.  In our history, not just as food gatherers, but as information gatherers, hands were a primary tool.   We used them not just to hold things but to map our worlds.




4. Morning


The first distinctive song this morning, at 4:26, is the upward whittling of the cardinal.  At 4:44 the woodwinds join in with the mourning doves’ hollow cooing.  It isn’t until almost five, 4:59 to be precise, that the hinged song of chickadee completes the symphony.   


            I am up early to write—just like the old days living on Cape Cod.  I am reminded that for me the romantic image of the “cabin in the woods” is not necessarily about quiet and calm, about “relaxing” in nature.  The cabin I like is Van Gogh’s yellow house or Jackson Pollack’s Long Island.  For me the cabin is not a place of peace but the place where you make art.  


            One of the pleasures of writing essays is making connections, seeing how disparate things can form a circuit and how that circuit can electrify.  It is not necessarily a pleasurable state, because there is too much going on, too much you need to “get down” before the state passes.  It is rushed, intense, uncomfortable.   I wake early not just because of the birds but because of that Christmas morning feeling of expectation.  What will happen today?   What unconnected things might connect?  What circuits will be plugged in?


My own overexcited state is reflected in Hadley.  Her cousins are here and she chases after them on the beach.   My wife has been keeping a journal of Hadley’s growth since she was born and yesterday’s entry reads:


                                                                                                            June 19


When Hadley sees an animal—the neighbor’s Siamese cat, a little white dog on the street—she presses her head into its face.  Just like Tabernash taught her.  Deeply sweet and heartbreaking.  She does it to Sukie too, and that poor old cat purrs and purrs.


It’s been over a month since I last wrote in here – and what a month for Hadley.  She presses the boundaries of delight, leaving glowing smiles and desperate heartache in her wake.  I thought we were going to have to sedate Kim (her babysitter)  when she left for home last Tuesday.  These days with Addie and Noah are unbelievably fun and insanely exhausting – Hadley puts her every heart, muscle and bone into following them, playing with them, responding to them.


            Walking: hard to believe she ever didn’t walk.  She runs, she dances, she stomps her feet, she jumps.  Words she says consistently are Cat (of course), and now Kitty Cat, Cow, Cow Moo, Duck, Dog, Baba, Kim, and Noah.  In the past two days she also seems to have said “No” and “More.”  And “up,” possibly “down.”


            One aside: In Cambridge this week, five-year-old Addie asked her mother Heidi: “What do you think Hadley does when she sees God?”


            Heidi said, “I don’t know.  Maybe she smiles?”


            I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Heidi has a better relationship with/perception of God than I do, since my first thought was “Quake with fear.”




            As Nina points out, the long-expected blossoming of language has come.  As Hadley discovers the world through language, repeating the journey of her species, I find it interesting that so many of her early words signify animals.  Some naturalists speculate that language grew in precisely this way, because humans had to make distinctions—distinctions for hunting and protection—about the animal world around us.   While I don’t think Hadley is worried about either hunting or fleeing from predators, it is remarkable how much of her inner life, from her love of the Pooh books to the stuffed toys she grasps, revolves around animals.   The naming of creatures and language are linked.




* * *




By six I am down at the beach naming animals of my own.   Call me Adam.  Or maybe not.  Either way, I am a pretty rudimentary namer, labeling the fox kits #s 1, 2, and 3.  Not romantic names, true, but anything I can do to make them less cute helps with objectivity.   Yesterday, while walking down below the bluff, I came upon #2.  I would say I startled him but that wouldn’t be accurate.  The sun was out and so were the intense silver and greens of the ocean and eel grass.  It was a fall-ish day, the world silver-edged and crisp, whitecaps boiling the bay.  I was just out past the rocks, and past where the people go, when the kit came ambling out from behind a rock.  Lazy, tired, yawning, it cast a glance at me, but, far from running away, it just cocked its head.  It then turned away, and, after a casual glance back, walked a few feet out of my path.  On the way back I saw it again, but that only sent it about 10 feet off behind a rock.  From there it examined me until I passed and then it walked back to its previous spot where it plopped down to nap in the sun. 


            This morning the other young foxes are equally lazy, lolling with their paws over the rocks near their den, while nearby a prairie warbler lets loose with an upward scale of Zs.   After a while the kits finally roust themselves and start hop-pouncing on insects, getting on with practicing the business of being foxes.   It’s perfect, really, that kits are also called “pups” since foxes seem caught in some indeterminate space between the worlds of dog and cat.  They are the most obviously feline of the canines, lounging and leaping through the world in a decidedly cat-like manner.  Their cat-dog ears are great indicators of emotion, and they flatten them against their heads when afraid.  They also lower their tails in dog-like fashion when threatened.  And, like dogs, these pup-kits find nothing, as Rue III puts it, “as satisfying as a good stick.”  Rue has noted that they play all the usual games, tag and leapfrog and hide-and-seek, the play doing its grave work of preparing them for a life of hunting.  In fact the more I watch them play the more satisfied I am with their canine classification.  They roll and bark and growl and wag tails and occasionally grovel at each other’s feet in submissive poses very similar to coyotes I have watched.  


A larger question: How do they experience this beach, their world?  The only member of the dog family with elliptical pupils, they are, like all other non-primate mammals, color-blind.  So it is a shady world they see.  But this “weakness” is more than compensated for by their noses and ears.  They put these tools to good use.  They are omnivorous, and despite their sharp teeth they swallow whole whatever prey they can catch and then let their powerful stomach enzymes do the work of chewing.   Rabbits, voles, mice, squirrels, woodchucks, game birds, deer mice—they eat them all.  They also eat berries if they are ripe, and the adults will graze grass as a laxative.   Theirs is a complex world and, like humans, they take a while growing into it.  These kits were likely born back in March, blind and helpless, and didn’t open their eyes for their first nine days.  Not until three to four weeks later did they finally poke their heads out of the den, and then only to peek and retreat.  Or as the oft-poetic Mr. Rue puts it: “The great big outside world is a terrifying place, and the first fluttering of a leaf or the slightest noise sends the pups tumbling back down into the safe darkness of the womb of the earth.”  At around six weeks they finally head out of the den, and at eight weeks their eyes change from blue to yellow.   The kits that I am watching are at least three months old, and have begun to practice-hunt on their own, but still rely on their mother for food and most everything else.




5. With a Twist


A naturalist friend told me that I can draw in foxes by kissing the back of my hand, which simulates the sounds of a mouse.  But so far there has been no need to draw them in since they are everywhere I look.  Our local fox population explosion coincided with an unexplained tailing off of coyotes in this neighborhood.  I still see coyotes at dusk and dawn but the foxes have taken over.  Yesterday I observed the mother of the kits trotting along in broad daylight on the path behind the cranberry bog, and this morning I witness an even more brazen act.  Hadley and I are making our morning drive to the coffee shop when I see a fox taking a crap in the middle of the road.  It’s not one of “our” foxes, but a scraggly character with little red patches on top of its head.  After I bring Nina’s coffee home and drop Hadley off, I walk back up the road to examine the scat.  It is smallish compared to most dogs’ and has a fancy little twist on its top, as if it had been twirled between a pastry chef’s fingers.  Then I notice that the fox is still around, watching me from the edge of the woods, just off the road, as I study its shit.   I was right about this one: He or she is mangier with a brown black back.  Scragly and rangy.  Then I remember something I read in Rue’s book.  Often times by the end of spring the mothers will look “gaunt and worn,” from months of tending to their young.  It’s true that this is not the case with the mother I watch in the mornings, but perhaps she is a particularly robust individual.  Who knows?


            And another equally pertinent question: What leads a man to inspect the excrement of another mammal?




6. Field Work


I like watching the foxes but sometimes taking field notes can be just plain boring.  That was one of the dark secrets of the season that I studied ospreys at the nests near here: just how dull the work could be despite occasional moments of great drama.   During the course of six months I watched one nestling kill another, saw the two month-old birds lift off into flight, witnessed spectacular dives for fish and observed daily feedings of the young.   These moments were, however, islands in a sea of tedium.  I remember long hours spent with my butt in my chair and my eye to the telescope.


To be perfectly honest I sometimes feel the same way about hanging out with Hadley.  I understand that these moments with her will be the ones I look back on and consider the best in my life.  But there are times I also find myself counting the minutes until it’s time to hand her back to Nina.  I am caught between ennui and joy.  Loving it and being bored at the same time. 




7. Marital Society


During these brimful days, the nestling ospreys have started to lift their heads over the nest’s edge.          The Rogosa Rose smells like perfume, and flickers flash by with yellow underwings.  Yesterday on the way to coffee with Hadley I saw the scraggly fox run by with a squirrel in its mouth.  It hurried off when we drove up but then came back to the edge of the woods again to inspect the car. 


            Today, after a morning with the foxes, I discover a couple of ticks have made my scalp their new home.  This discovery leads to Nina and I grooming both each other and Hadley.  Typical primate behavior, as much social activity as maintenance.  While we groom, Nina tells me a story about what happened yesterday at the playground.  We are new at this parent thing and are just discovering the social rules for bragging about your own child’s development, since everyone is obviously focused primarily on their child.  Nina was pushing Hadley on a swing set next to a kid her age.  Earlier Hadley had been charging around the playground so the other mother asked Nina, somewhat anxiously, how long Hadley had been walking.  Nina told her, then the other mother asked if Hadley had any words yet.  Nina lied and said no, not wanting to make the woman feel bad, and the woman proudly told Nina that her baby called their father “Ba.”   Nina nodded and pushed Hadley for a while longer.  Then she took her out of the swing, said goodbye to the woman and walked away.   As she was leaving, Hadley waved from over Nina’s shoulder and yelled back to the other child: “Bye, bye, baby.”    


            Of course the only society where Hadley boasting is acceptable is within our marital one, though grandmothers make a pretty good audience, too.  The bond between Nina and myself has never been tighter, but it is also different, since we have a new child, and new tasks, to focus on.   When Nina reads these field notes I have been taking she is critical of them.  “They sound like the reflections of a single father,” she says.   Well, I argue, I am writing from my point of view.  The truth is there is no question who the star of Hadley’s own show is.  As with all primates, both the greater burden and greater joy fall to the mother.    




8. Scraggly


I am writing when I hear a horrible screeching outside.  My first irrational thought is “Hadley” and before I can think I am out of my chair.  Of course even before I make it downstairs I am aware that no human being could make such a noise and indeed I pass my daughter where she is playing on the floor.  When I look outside I see the scraggly fox, the one who shat in the road, scrambling through our bushes.  Deeper in the briars is a calico cat, clearly on the run.  Even after I yell after them, the howling continues and it takes another second to understand that it is the pursuer, the fox, making these sounds, not the pursued.   Nina immediately worries about Sukie, and shoos her into the house. 


            Is this scraggly fox a loner or does he have a family of kits that he hoped to bring the calico cat back to?   I don’t know, but I do know he isn’t the father of #s 1, 2, and 3.   Lately the male fox, the father of “my” kits, has been more visible, and a few times I have tried unsuccessfully to trail him on his hunting expeditions.  According to Leonard Lee Rue, the male is exiled from the den in the weeks before the mother gives birth.  Prior to this time, the male and female have gone everywhere and done everything together, but now there is a shift, and the female no longer hunts with the male.   She holes up waiting for birth while he continues to hunt, “leaving a share of his catch at the mouth of the den.”   It isn’t until the kits are two weeks old that the male will reunite with the female.   This reunion, again according to Rue, can “only be described with only one word—ecstasy.”  He continues:


            As the male drew near, the female bounded out to greet him, uttering a loud, high-pitched wail.   When she got close to him, she would flop down on her belly, raised her tail up over her back, and wave it furiously.  From the prone position she would spring straight up and kiss the male all over with her tongue, and the male would reciprocate.  The male would pick up whatever food he had dropped during this exchange, and the pair would trot back to the den and the pups.




            The accepted knowledge is that the male and female are equally comfortable feeding the young,  but that is not what I have witnessed, and if that is the case why is it the female who ends up looking “gaunt and worn” by Spring’s end?   With the ospreys I studied, the male-female division was quite obvious.   The birds shared incubation duties but once the chicks hatched the female took over at the nest while the male did all the hunting, feeding himself first before bringing back the rest for his mate and the nestlings. 


And while his several daily dives into the water kept his feathers gleaming, the female, worn down by months in the nest, begins to look dusky and bedraggled.  It’s no wonder that come fall, the female will take off for South America before both its mate and its young.  She needs a vacation.


            One key difference between watching foxes and ospreys is that with birds so much behavior is encoded, and though I certainly observed variations within osprey families, their worlds are not nearly as complex as the world of foxes.  Or to put it another way, there is a greater range of possibility in the fox world.   Foxes represent intelligence and cunning and one way we define intelligence is in flexibility.  No doubt the notes I am making could apply generally to any fox family.   But they apply specifically to this one.   Study any animals long enough and they begin to emerge both as types and individuals.   




9. Territory


Today a twist: Instead of visiting the foxes at their home, they show up at mine.  I am sitting at my desk scribbling in this fox journal when I see a flash of orange outside the window.   Next thing I know all three kits are bumbling their way across our lawn.   Part of getting older is getting braver, and these young are expanding their territory.  Apparently that territory now includes our own.  


Their range will continue to expand throughout the summer.  Soon their milk teeth will be gone, their true teeth emerging.  As they begin to feed themselves, they will start with beginner food, berries and the like, and their first hunting experiences will be with insects, since they are easy to catch.   As summer lengthens they will trot farther afield.  Trot, not walk, for as Rue writes they are “not walkers” and that they can trot “seemingly forever.”  They are also one of the fastest of land animals, able to run in front of a car going 30 mph, and moving in bursts closer to 50, and due to this they are less often found dead along our highways than other small animals.


            Rue also insists that they will soon learn to cower from man, but for now they still show no fear.  Hadley and Nina and I watch and laugh as they tumble and roll in our driveway.  They are still preposterously cute, their future angularity still rounded out with baby fat.   Nina reminds me of an incident that occurred the first time we visited Cape Cod with Hadley, when she was just 3-4 weeks old.  I was new to fatherhood and fatherhood’s contraptions, but sometime in the late afternoon I strapped Hadley into a chest papoose called a Baby Bjorn and went for a hike on the beach.  It was already getting dark, and pretty windy, when I got to the rocks below the bluff, and I knew it made sense to head back.  But Hadley seemed happy enough out there on the bluff and so I jumped from rock to ankle-twisting rock and made it out to the wild point where I used to spend so many hours watching birds.  By the time I had crossed the other side of the rock field it was too dark to cross back, and so I cut up through the woods and cranberry bog until we reached the road home.  It was pitch black by then and Hadley and I were greeted by an understandably outraged Nina.   This outrage wasn’t lessened when we figured out that I hadn’t latched the Baby Bjorn properly and that she was only secured by a shakiest of attachments.   This was Hadley’s second great adventure (if you count the emergence from the birth canal as her first.)


            Today we engage in a calmer family adventure.   We drive up Route 6 to Wellfleet to return to Lieutenant Island, a landscape that my wife wrote about in her book of short stories.   We cross the old bridge that gets flooded out at moon tides and the marsh road that floods at every high tide, changing the place from a merely nominal island into an actual one.  We drive out to the far end of the island and park in a dune lot, then walk into the story that Nina wrote.  Though the story was fiction, the place was very real, and from the beach we looked up at the house that the one in the story was based on.  It sat perched on the edge of a bluff as if almost ready to high dive into the ocean.


            I don’t know if I can explain this exactly, but the fact that Nina had written about it makes the place far more interesting to me.  It infuses the landscape with something—personal myth, maybe, human meaning—that it would lack if it was unwritten land. 




10. Love and Objectivity


How is it possible for Nina to write objectively about Hadley? 


            It is not, I suppose.  Ditto for me.  We are prewired to love our off-spring in outsized, outrageous ways.  So does that render my observations of my daughter useless?  I don’t think so.  As long as I take some caution about not writing in a “Isn’t that adorable” vein, then why should it matter if love infuses—not to say contaminates—my sentences?  My best writing about ospreys, I’m sure, was filled not just with admiration but love for the birds.  It sounds hokey, but isn’t it obvious that our best writing must be suffused with love?


I think of Alan Poole, who wrote the definitive book on ospreys and their behavior.   Not long ago we rented his house in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a small cabin tucked into the trees that overlooked a tidal creek, an osprey nest, and the ocean beyond.   While staying there, I found an old rotting notebook in the shed from the early 1980s when Alan conducted his osprey studies.  It was a mouse-eaten steno book and a typical entry might read:


7:25: Male returns to nest with female


7:37 Male leaves nest


8:20 Male returns with fish




And so on.  Simple factual entries but not without some spare poetry.  And when mixed together with a thousand other like entries they add up to a picture of the birds’ world that in the end gave life to his book.  The field notes were the bricks that built his knowledge of ospreys, but somewhere along the way he fell for the birds.  It makes me wonder whether the best science, for all its pretensions to objectivity, doesn’t require a dash or more of love. 


Thinking of Alan and his ospreys makes me think of  Piaget, the great child psychologist.  Piaget’s famous studies, long the cornerstone of our thought on infant and child development, have also been of great use to primatologists when studying young chimpanzees and monkeys.   According to Juan Carlos Gomez, these “epoch making studies about the first two years of life” were based on his study of “three young primates—his own children.”  Yes, of course.  What could make more sense than studying what is literally close to home?


            Hadley is special, to me, but is she “special”?  No, and that is precisely the point.  She is just one small animal on a globe stuffed with animals of the same species, animals that, if viewed from a distance, seem to be overrunning the planet like locusts.


            But it is the individual animal that is the miracle.  The theory of evolution, say the creationists, devalues man.  How wrong-headed!  Instead it gives humans exactly the value they deserve, which is a lot.  To say we share 98.5 % of our DNA with chimps is not reductive (especially considering what chimps can do.)  But the other 1.5 % holds the secret to the most complex form of communication on the planet—speech!  (and let’s not forget writing!)   So: Evolution is the miracle.   Heaven is a single living child.




11. Solstice


Summer solstice comes in with a cold front and feels, appropriately, like fall.   Appropriate both because today the journey to the next season begins and because for me fall was always the productive time on the Cape.  The cold invigorates and makes it hard to sit still.  No field work today, as I pass by the fox den without seeing any of the kits.  They are out exploring no doubt, being led far afield by their parents, who will continue to drop food farther and farther from the den, encouraging this adventurousness.  One of the things the kits are doing is making cognitive maps, learning their place in the world, matching what is in their minds to the land around them.  Hadley, of course, is doing the same, though soon she will blast off into a world of language they will never know, dozens of words sticking in her mind like flies to flypaper.  On the other hand, Hadley will never quite smell or hear the world like the kits.


I hike hard out to the bluff, the same spot where I carried my three-week-old daughter in the faulty papoose.  Enjoying the coldish wind and white caps, I stop from time to time to scribble things down in my journal or speak into my tape recorder.  No sooner do I see a rock filled with cormorants than “rock with cormorants” goes down on the page.  It is somewhat of a cliché to say that this recording of life competes with life, that there is an “either-or” choice as in “You are either writing or living.”  No less an authority than Thoreau wrote: “Life is the poem I would have writ/if I were not so busy living it.”  How can I write, young writers often ask, when I want to live?


Personally I think this is garbage.  For me the writing enhances the life.  Some of my most heightened moments in nature occurred on this very bluff, and the almost instantaneous writing down of those moments added to their intensity.   The Thoreau I am most interested in is the Thoreau writing Walden, not living it.  Of course, despite the myth, the two are inseparable.  He was always scribbling down notes on paper (using the pencils his family produced) and then, later that day, entering them in revised form into the ledger of his journal.  He was both the subject of his experiment and the recorder of it, and without the recording he is of no interest to us.   It was the recording itself that added the mythic component.  That was what made it more interesting to him as well as to others.  Thoreau’s was essentially the same experiment that Montaigne conducted in his chateau 300 years before, with a few trees, moths and muskrats thrown in.


Taking this a step further, could it be possible that Piaget would have lacked the inspiration, that is to say the love, required to make his jumps to insight, had it not been his own children he was studying?   And, though he always gets a bad rap, let’s not exclude B.F. Skinner, whose daughter, for the record, never complained about sleeping in her famous box.   I have written about my own daughter since her first moment of wild, squalling emergence more than 13 months ago.   And not for a minute do I think it has detracted from the experience.  In fact, it has intensified it, made it even more interesting for me, though, as with field notes of any kind, there are moments of tedium.  But with these field notes on her, like any nature notes, the writing enhances the experience.  It is another way to be engaged with what is happening—mentally, creatively and even professionally.   I write “professionally” because as a writer I am always putting my experience to use, stealing it for another purpose other than the experience itself.   You could argue that Piaget and Skinner did the same for science.


At the beginning of Gomez’s book on ape and human infants, he compares watching his nine-month-old daughter to watching an infant gorilla and an infant monkey.   The thing that distinguished the monkey from the other two was that it rarely took time to study things.  It grabbed objects quickly, stuck things in its mouth, and was on to the next object.  It rarely took time to really look a thing over, to try to understand it, the way the gorilla, and, even more so, his daughter did.   Maybe as Gomez sat there, studying his daughter as she studied these objects—toys, spoons—new to her, he exemplified something about humans, something that the monkey didn’t have and that the gorilla only reached part way to.  Maybe deep observation, coupled with our obvious gift of language, is what truly defines us, maybe that is a large part of the unique 1.5% of our DNA—this ability to self-consciously note what is happening and then make mental maps, not just of the world, but of ourselves.


I love raw experience, love being surprised by the orange flash of a fox’s tail or the new words of my daughter.  For me, though, the experience would not be complete without writing that experience down.  In this way writing is observation energized.   Writing, my old friend Reg Saner once said, “occurs at the intersect of seeing and language.”  But as I scribble these words down out here on this rock, as the surprisingly fall-ish waves crash against the shore, I must turn Reg’s coupling into a triangulation.   Because I can’t help but notice that it isn’t just my human eyes and my human language-making brain that are at work right now, but my primate hand gripping this pen.  It is when these three skills, honed by evolution over eons, are working in concert, that we are most what we are.  And, paradoxically, it is also then that we have the best chance of expanding ourselves, of evolving, of becoming more.







  1. Noah writes:

    I heard somewhere that people tend to speak of human evolution as if it is finished, as if the final product has been reached. I saw a short video of Michio Kaku saying that if human civilization could make the move from Earth to colonize space, it would be the equivalent of a society achieving immortality. It makes me wonder about the future; it also makes me wonder if people will look back on pieces such as this, or maybe earlier colonists, and try to figure out what this planet was really like.