Today, as I walk a country road, I’m thinking off and on about two friends who are premier citizen scientists here in southern New Mexico. One is an emergency room physician who builds and operates telescopes accurate enough to send useful information to NASA. The other retired from being a doctor after he performed my first colonoscopy (one did not lead to the other) and is now the expert on the bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and hornworts) of the Gila National Forest. I’ve been talking with both men and am struck that neither felt transformed by their work as citizen scientists. Instead they pursued longtime interests and built on previous strengths.
My goal, pursuing the Western red-bellied tiger beetle, was more grandiose. At every point in life, and not just the tail end of middle age, there is a long list of what we will not ever be, not a rock star musician, not a lawyer for the United Nations, not a chef for a French restaurant. But in my study of this obscure insect, I didn’t want to be something else so much as someone else. I wanted a window into the Other. I wanted transformation, and I am suddenly wondering: is this a personal theme?
Moreover, is it wrong-headed? The desire to transform implies that whoever you are to begin with is not good enough. Although that may be true--I can’t help but think--self-doubt doesn’t seem a strong starting point for change. Most citizen scientists, I suspect, are more like my two friends, building on existing strengths rather than creating new ones. At the same time, some citizen scientists do uncover hidden strengths, neglected strengths, and that’s surely a good feeling. They find themselves surprisingly adept at folding amino acids or cataloging galaxies, usefully studying urban squirrels or phytoplankton or monarch butterflies, and their knack for this work can be traced back to childhood. They are just becoming more of who they are.
Where an arroyo meets the dirt road, I stop and look for tracks. A few feet up the streambed are a set of bobcat prints. There’s no mistaking that roundness, the leading toe, and size of the front and back feet. I also see a fox print, or maybe a small coyote. Foxes are on my mind since I saw one earlier in the day, an animal who ran so quickly into the brush I spent a few minutes doubting what I had seen. Foxes are rarer since an outbreak of rabies two years ago. Was that a fox or a wish?
That’s one good thing about tracks. They stay there. You can admire them for long minutes, imagining the animal who passed by, feeling the tangible presence of a bobcat, a wild cat, short-tailed, ear-tufted, delicately spotted, charismatic.
It’s another gift, the world showering us with gifts, the tail of a fox, tracks in the sand, and there
--in the dry streambed, a massive dark rock with white radiating lines, a geometric pattern of dark and light, veins of quartz, cool to the touch. Is this boulder for me?
I feel the need to fall in love with the world, to forge that relationship ever more strongly. But maybe I don’t have to work so hard. Maybe the world is already in love, giving me these gifts all the time, calling out all the time. I have thought nature indifferent to one more human, to any human, but maybe the reverse is true. The world calls out: take this. Take this. And this. And this. Don’t turn away.
And here’s the end of my walk, and once again, no different today, I didn’t discover any hidden or neglected talent. I didn’t transform into someone I am not. But I am building on existing strengths. I’ve always been good at skittering and darting on the surface of things, adding a few animal tracks to the few birds I know and the few butterflies and the few plants. And I’ve always been good at walking on a country road and seeing for a nanosecond something shivery and grand. Requited love. I am the bride of the world, and I am the groom.