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Andrea McDowell: Ignorance

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your family?

My family is about as small as a family can be right now: myself and Frances. Her father and I separated about three and a half years ago, so we are right now a family of two. Frances’s family, of course, is larger.

Frances remains the same sweet, affectionate, giggly, energetic, clever little bunny she was when I first nicknamed her the World’s Best Baby Ever, Bar None–only now she’s six and a half, reading chapter books, memorizing facts about dinosaurs and in all respects acting like someone who intends to actually grow up. This still stuns me, somehow. Frances has now heard often enough about this that she sometimes asks me if it seems like I just brought her home from the hospital last week.

As for me: I work full time coordinating environmental assessments for wind farms, part time writing mostly short environmental pieces, volunteer for a couple of environmental groups–you may notice a theme here–do a lot of nature walks, read obsessively, take pictures, run, sew, bake, and of course take care of Frances. I ask myself, why burn the candle at both ends when you can break it in half and burn all four? While juggling them, even. Why not?

How did you find out about the My Baby Rides the Short Bus anthology?

Initially I saw a post on Literary Mama‘s blog about the anthology, and I was mulling over what to submit when one of the editors–unfortunately I can’t remember which one but I think it might have been Jennifer–contacted me and asked me to contribute. I was thrilled to, of course. It’s my first book credit. 🙂

How did you choose to submit “The Story So Far?”

I didn’t. I’d actually written an entirely different contribution, about a death threat I’d received because my daughter is short. They asked me to rework and submit “The Story So Far” instead. Death threats have more dramatic potential but I suppose less of the everyday flavour they were looking for.

When I think back and try to remember the inspiration for “The Story So Far” for the blog, I believe it was because of the number of Google searches coming through obviously from pregnant women freaking out over a potential dwarfism diagnosis. “Fetal ultrasound short femur” or “short femur 32 weeks” or “achondroplasia ultrasound” or whatever. And people would leave comments or send emails — dwarfism is not like Down syndrome, or asperger’s, or autism. All forms of dwarfism together have a 1/10,000 rate for live births, and each particular type of dwarfism is considerably more rare than that. Right now, there isn’t a thriving online community of dwarfism or parent-of-dwarf blogs. There are a couple of memoirs, a couple of websites for in-person support groups, a bunch of medical information, and that’s it. Given that it wasn’t that long ago that a parent of a newborn dwarf might be told of their child’s promising career in the circus, that might not be so surprising.

When I was told that Frances would have a “mild form of dwarfism,” when I was seven months pregnant, I was terrified. (“But don’t worry,” said the doctor, “we’re pretty sure it’s not fatal.”) Completely terrified. Every new (mis)diagnosis terrified me again. When I got to that place on the other side of the terror, I felt a responsibility to telegraph it back to those pregnant women googling their eyes out after that first terrifying ultrasound: it’s coming, you’ll be ok, your child will be ok, better than ok. God knows, barring the medical merry-go-round in the first year of Frances’s life, she is a great kid. She makes being a mom very, very easy. As far as I’m concerned, I won the lottery.

From Andrea’s nature blog: Zoopolis: Ignorance

What are we learning? I don’t know. Something. But it’s fun.

I know nothing about nature.

An odd thing for an eco-geek and professional environmentalist to confess, I grant you, but it’s true. I know nothing about nature. Oh sure, I have an undergrad degree in Environmental Studies complete with courses on ecology, biology, complex systems, remediation, and the history of environmental thought. And yes, I do have a bookshelf full of field guides, albums and hard disks crammed with nature photos, pictures on the walls, and a deep and abiding love and appreciation for the life cycle of the trout lily and the trillium. But that’s just it. Once you’ve learned that much, you know that you could spend the rest of your life doing nothing but learning about non-human nature, and at the end of your alloted threescore-and-ten, you would still know so very little that it would amount to nothing at all. Nothing of any significance. A mere fingernail scratch on the surface of our vast and collective ignorance.

I think it’s a cheat, personally, and am very bitter that I only get that threescore-and-ten to figure it all out. If it’s going to take me a millenium, then dammit, why don’t I get one? Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, I know nothing about nature.

Which makes you wonder–and well you might, since it makes me wonder–what special form of hubris I must suffer under to think that I am qualified to teach Frances anything whatsoever about nature?

Good question. Umm … I don’t know.

Biologists used to think that there might be as many as three million different species on the planet, until an enterprising entomologist (Terry Irwin from the National Museum of Natural History) went and fumigated a single tree of a single species in the Panamanian rainforest. Just one. Underneath it, before the fumigation, he’d placed several overlapping metre-wide funnels, so that anything that fell out of the tree could be collected and classified. And from just this one tree–just one!–he found 1200 species of beetles, 163 of them specific to this one species of tree. Extrapolating from this study, Erwin estimated that there may be 30,000,000 species of arthropods in the world, let alone mammals and worms and birds and all the rest. It was a controversial estimate, but even naysayers now assume that there are at least 2.5 million and possibly over 10 million species of arthropods. Arthropods!  And here I am, teaching Frances about pine trees. Biologists now estimate that the earth may host as many as 100,000,000 species, and likely between five and twenty million. Of which we have classified 1.5 million (and many of those assumed to be duplicates).

That’s a lot. By the time we catalogue them all so many more will have evolved that we’d be starting from scratch again. As a species, collectively, we’ll never know anything more than the most basic information about nature. This doesn’t stop us from obliterating 100 species every day … but that’s another post.

I don’t know anything about non-human nature. YOU, dear reader, know nothing about non-human nature. Our most emminent biological experts know NOTHING about non-human nature. This is an insoluble ignorance. We might as well get comfortable with it.

So who do I think I am, taking Frances outside to teach her about nature?

Well. I do teach her a couple things, like acorns turn into oak trees, chipmunks are fiercer than squirrels, maple syrup comes from maple trees but not the kind growing out back, chickadees stay here all winter, that trillium is at least seven years old, this Queen Anne’s Lace is actually a wild carrot and not native to Southern Ontario, and other unrelated bits of trivia that I’ve collected over the years. It all adds up to … nothing, probably. Not even as much as she’d need to pass a highschool ecology test.

She’s not learning about math outside, when she’s with me, though we often count things we see. She’s not learning about art or aesthetics, though we often comment on the beauty of what we find. She’s not learning about biology in any practical way when I teach her about tadpoles and frogs, and she’s too young to be terrified of the natural world so I don’t tell her about the endocrine disruptors we’ve dumped so much of into the environment that many frogs are going extinct because they can no longer reproduce. Maybe she’ll pick up enough to be useful to her in her future academic or professional careers, and maybe not.

I don’t care.

So long as she learns to love it.

She won’t love it in the same way or for the same reasons I do. That’s ok. There are at least 5,000,000 good reasons to love the world (though falling fast); we don’t need to share them.

It’s so easy with kids. They have a natural affinity for animals and growing things. All you need to do is give them an opportunity and get out of the way. Just don’t tell them it’s gross or dirty or going to give them the plague.

But in another way, it’s so much harder than memorizing and reciting cool facts. I am teaching my daughter to love a dying world.

No one ever fought to save something they didn’t love first. She won’t fight to save our world–neither will you, neither will your kids–if she doesn’t love it first. So I’ll take her outside to teach her to love it, and let her figure out the rest for herself.

There are compensations.

Wood Song

Sarah Teasdale

I heard a wood thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star.
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.

Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call–
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.

What if a bird’s song could do that for you, or your child?

The world is a big, beautiful place, even broken and hobbled as it is, filled with amazing and gorgeous things, most of which have nothing to do with us. One thousand two hundred species of beetle in a single tree in the Panamanian rainforest. And we think our cities are diverse.

It’s not hard to love it, and love’s not hard to teach. Kids can fall in love with a mud puddle, if you let them get dirty. Just take them outside and get out of their way, and everything else will fall into place.

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