So many ways to know the world

P1090701I thought that my joining the group from the Carroll Center for the Blind and the Perkins School would prove to be inspiring. Doug Williams had agreed to team up with Jerry Berrier (with whom he had worked to design the Sensory Trail) and offer an introduction to birding for the blind or visually impaired. They would go through some preliminary instruction in the Nature Center, then venture out to the Sensory Trail to experience birding firsthand, as well as some of the other flora and fauna that distinguishes Stony Brook along the way. I was right, the program was inspirational, but in ways I never would have anticipated.

Through the training session inside, Jerry Berrier was his usual remarkable self: incredibly knowledgeable, witty and self-effacing, entertaining and a pleasure to be with. The staff from the Perkins School were skilled teachers, caring and solicitous, as eager to learn as they were willing to guide.

Jerry introduced the group to some of the technology and apps available for anyone seeking to identify birds, in this case focusing on sound. As they listened, the various participants were struck by the subtle variety and texture of the calls. They asked great questions about what was being communicated and whether there’s an actual language that can be deciphered. Then Jerry had the group practice with some calls they could expect when they went outside. The participants were delighted to find that many of the songs or vocals they already knew, and those they didn’t were so interesting and distinct that they were eager to try to hear them in the wild.

P1090698On the trail itself, Doug assumed the lead. There he demonstrated a wide range of expertise and knowledge, delivered in such a warm and effortless manner that even I who know him well was impressed, though not surprised. Doug stopped nearly a dozen times along the trail when he heard a specific call of interest and asked the group if they could identify it. In several cases they could, but some sounds were too obscure or complex, or too muffled by other ambient calls in the vicinity, for the participants to recognize.

When a group member wanted to go back to a sound, Doug could play it from his phone app or recorder. When another wanted to know what plant was responsible for “that intoxicating smell” along the way, Doug always had the answer: wild blueberry or Lily of the Valley in this case. At times members would pick off a branch or flower and pass it among the group to touch or smell or know more intimately. All the while participants would exchange stories from their past, or recall Latin names of species, or laugh at mistaken identifications, or simply stop to feel the breezes and warm air. It was a joyous outing.

What surprised me, though, was my ignorance. Like many others, perhaps, I have never known many blind people and found that I was somewhat uncomfortable in their presence. When talking to individuals, I wasn’t sure where to look or how to respond when so much of my communication depends upon eye contact, body language, or other visual clues. I didn’t want to be rude or offensive, offer to help when it wasn’t necessary, or assume that something wasn’t understood when it clearly was.

P1090705I quickly learned, however, that the various members of the group were used to interacting with sighted people. They were comfortable in their own skins and had a facility for putting others at ease. They joked about their own short-comings or limitations. They were not shy about asking questions or looking foolish if they stumbled on a root. They moved cautiously, but confidently, savoring the opportunity to be out and about, to be active and with other people who shared their interests. I envied them their heightened sense of hearing and smell, their pleasure in touching the simplest objects, their desire to know things fully by moving them around in their hands.

P1090704There are so many ways to know the world. It’s remarkable how narrow-minded we become, how much we assume, how much we take for granted. It’s so difficult for us to imagine that a hawk can see a mouse scurrying beneath the brush a mile away, or various birds, insects and bees can see ultraviolet colors on flowers which we cannot. We cannot fathom how a dog can detect a human’s smell as it dissipates over a space as large as Philadelphia, how a lowly mosquito can sense a temperature difference of 1/250 of a degree of Fahrenheit so that it can land on the warmest vein of human blood. We do not understand, as Doug reminded us, how a ruby-throated hummingbird weighing less than a nickle can fly non-stop over 500 miles from the Yucatan Peninsula, across the Gulf of Mexico, to High Island, Texas.

We do not have to wait for aliens from outer space to demonstrate Nature’s uncanny ability to “measure” the world in creative ways or to display super-human powers. It’s happening all around us, every day, both in the animal world and the human. Though they wouldn’t know it, on this day the group from the Carroll School opened my eyes to this fact. I was privileged to join them and to share in their stories.