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Autumn, Curiosity, and Hope for the Future

Bill Meredith

"I think, at a childís birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity."
     Eleanor Roosevelt

(Oct, 2012) One day in the spring of 1997, Bo Cadle came to my office and asked if I would be interested in writing a column for the Emmitsburg Dispatch, which he and Jean had recently started. The idea sounded intriguing, but, being gainfully employed just then, I had no free time, so I declined. Bo was tactfully understanding, but the seed of the idea had been planted; and after I retired he was more persistent. So, partly to avoid boredom, I began writing. The essays came out irregularly at first, but before long they became a regular feature, and they continued as the paper evolved into its present form and title. This monthís article is a minor anniversary of sorts, the 150th in the series.

The older you get, the more the calendar becomes cluttered with such things. There are regular holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and seasonal events that happen every year. Sometimes such routine events have the potential to achieve historical uniqueness; for instance, is it possible that the next World Series could feature the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals? But more often, the only difference between this yearís event and last yearís is that youíre a year older. Age makes a big difference. Having a birthday when youíre 80 is not the same as it was when you were five. When I was five, my thoughts were directed to the future; I couldnít wait to be six because then I could go to school, and I expected that I would start first grade the next day. I had no doubt that some day I would be a fireman or truck driver, or have my own farm, or be President. Now, at 79, the only difference I expect to see at 80 is that my golf shots will be another five or ten yards shorter, and my daydreams are usually about the past instead of the future. I seem to be coming to a stage in life when reaching a calendar event just means Iíve survived another unit of time.

One of those annual milestones, Fall, is here again; it slipped in quietly on Sept. 22, when no one was looking. Usually Iím not glad to see it; itís not my favorite season. The trees are pretty for a while, but on the whole, it is a season when things are leaving, disappearing or dying. The arrival of fall used to put me in a nostalgic or even sad frame of mind; but this year those emotions are being replaced by curiosity. I hope this is a good sign. Dorothy Parker once said, "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." I find a good deal of comfort in this. I hope sheís right; boredom is a fearsome malady, especially among retirees.

For example, each fall there comes a day when I fill the hummingbird feeder for the last time. Yesterday my wife remarked that she hadnít seen a hummingbird for several days, and I should put the feeder away; but I filled it one more time, and within minutes a hummingbird appeared. It was a young one, as usual for this time of year; the adults went south some weeks ago, and if you see an adult now you can be sure that it started in Canada or New England and is on its way south too. The young ones will wander off soon, driven southward by inherited instinct rather than foreknowledge or parental instruction. Some of them will get lost or die, but a surprising fraction of them will find their way to the coast of Louisiana. They will fatten up there for a few days, and one day when the wind is favorable they will take off across the Caribbean toward Yucatan, 200 miles nonstop over open water. Again, a surprising fraction of them will make it. So has it always been; as Max Ehrmann wrote in the Desiderata, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. The odds that they will be back next spring are at least as good as the chance that I will still be here. So instead of being depressed by their leaving, this year I found my mind was engaged in wondering how that migratory instinct works, and what kind of metabolic magic enables them to fly so far on such a tiny food reserve. I know more about those questions now than I did when I started studying biology, but thereís still a lot to learn.

Curiosity, thank goodness, is not limited to biologists. Last summer a friend who was working in his barn stepped on a cricket, and out of it popped a mass of long, slender black worms. Many people would not have stopped to look at them, but he did. He had never seen anything like them, so he put them in a jar and brought them to me. I recognized them as horsehair worms; they are commonly studied in zoology courses. They squirm around and tangle themselves into configurations like the Gordian Knot of Greek mythology, and because of this, zoologists gave them the name, Gordius. (Historically inclined readers will recall that no one could untie that knot; according to legend, Alexander the Great solved the problem by cutting it with his sword.) I was pleased to see that my friend had the curiosity to notice the worms and wonder what they were, and I was doubly impressed yesterday when he showed me another smashed cricket. This one had a different worm in it, white in color and much thicker than the earlier ones, and not inclined to coil into a knot. I had never seen one like it, but I was able to find a picture of it on the internet. It seems to have no common name; its friends in the zoological profession call it Spinochordodes tellini. Although it lives as a parasite in the body of the cricket, it must lay its eggs in water. When it is ready to lay the eggs, it is able somehow to stimulate the cricket to seek out a pond or stream and jump in; the cricket will die, but the eggs are released into the water to start the next generation of worms. There are plenty of questions there to be curious about.

I think curiosity is much more important than many people realize. While Mrs. Rooseveltís remark about the gift from a fairy godmother is a colorful metaphor, I believe all children have curiosity, admittedly in varying amounts. But somewhere between infancy and the early school years, something seems to stifle it in many children, and without it, education becomes a boring process of force-feeding. Children who retain their curiosity want to learn, and usually do well in school at all levels; but without curiosity, learning must be coerced, discipline problems arise, dropout rates soar and test scores plummet, as is happening in many of our high schools.

I was lucky; from earliest memory, my idea of play was following my father or grandmother around as they worked, and asking questions. I had only two teachers in my first eight grades, but both of them were really good. I now have two neighbors, aged two and four, who are starting out the same way; several times each week they come to show me things they have found and ask questions about them. Perhaps Mrs. Rooseveltís fairy godmother smiled upon them, but their parents are spending time with them and having the patience read to them and cope with the torrents of questions they ask. Good parenting and good teaching are not easy, but in the long run they are the only hope for our faltering educational system.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith