Discovery before Knowledge

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I heard a deer yell today. Okay … likely “yell” is not the proper technical term.

Did you know that white-tailed deer vocalize? I didn’t. Nearly five decades of life under my belt and somehow that fact had eluded me. I’d seen them often enough, quietly munching away or leaping stereotypically across a field. They were always alert, wary, big-eyed. And silent.

I was walking the dog, Kiko, when we came across the buck. He was sufficiently startled. Enough to bolt into the patch of woods behind our neighborhood. I soaked in the moment—he was a magnificent creature with a full, heavy rack of antlers—and waited for Kiko to calm down enough to continue our daily constitutional. We walked down the sidewalk and then approached the woods from the other side, along a gravel trail.

That’s when I heard the sound. I thought it was a child crying out. But it clearly came from the woods, not a frequent hangout for the neighborhood kids, and, furthermore, it was a school morning. Then I heard it again. A solo cry, a quick warning. And this time I knew it was some other sort of animal, not a child. Moments later, I noticed the two female deer lying quietly in the woods, watching Kiko and me, only their erect ears and attentive eyes moving.

A warning cry from the male!

I stood there for a minute, soaking in my experience. Perhaps the vast majority of people already know that deer vocalize, but for me, it was a personal discovery.

It made me wish for more. More discoveries, that is. For myself, and also for my children. Discovery before knowledge.

For instance, what if you saw a rainbow before ever hearing about one? An arc of pure brilliance in the sky. You would think it was a miracle.

Or the Northern Lights. Or the Grand Canyon. On a smaller scale, a lightning bug.

We have a family friend who raises monarch butterflies and, every so often, he will give us a chrysalis so we can witness the wonder of metamorphosis. And though we know what is going to happen, we gape in amazement every time. But now I am wishing my kids hadn’t known what would emerge from that small hanging sac. For that would have been pure magic.

As my kids move through their teen years, I am becoming keenly aware of mistakes I made when they were younger. I adore my kids and couldn’t be prouder, but I’d still like a redo, a chance to apply what I’ve learned in the meantime.

You see, I am a bit of a know-it-all. It’s unattractive. If I know something, I simply must share it. As the youngest child with two high-achieving older siblings, I am forever compelled to impress you with my wisdom, such as it is. But the truth is, children—well, all of us, really—learn so much better, so much more fully, when they discover something for themselves.

So if I had that parental rewind button, I would try to hold my tongue. Instead of telling, instead of teaching, I would prefer to guide. Expose them to things they can experience themselves, then help them decode it afterward. Instead of, “This pupa will become a butterfly in a few days!” I might say, “Let’s just see what happens.”

My daughter found a stick insect this summer. “Mom, look at this. What is it?” She, my son, and I all stared at that tiny creature for the longest time. Discovery. After it disappeared into a bush, we looked it up on the Internet to learn about what we’d seen. Kingdom Animalia, Class Insecta, Order Phasmatodea, to be exact.

We live in a world where information is at our fingertips. I was grateful for the Internet that day, to help us understand our experience. But nothing, nothing, can replace that moment of discovery. First discover, then inform. I’m afraid I’ve done it backwards far too often.

Aside from my motherly thoughts, I must learn to be more open to these experiences myself. I wouldn’t have noticed the stick insect. I’m glad I happened to hear the deer. And, again, I consulted the Internet to find out what I’d heard. Apparently white-tailed deer have an assortment of vocalizations, among them the warning cry I heard.

Since I was not born to be Lewis or Clark, Jacques Cousteau or Jane Goodall—all fortunate enough to be explorers of new frontiers—I need to content myself with smaller, personal discoveries. I need to keep my eyes and ears open for the next opportunity, for my next moment of minor insight. And then I’ll probably have to run and impress someone with what I’ve learned, much as I have done here. Some lessons are easier than others.

  • Andrea Friederici Ross

    Andrea Friederici Ross is the author of Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick and Let the Lions Roar! The Evolution of Brookfield Zoo. Her essay about Edith’s intention in founding Brookfield Zoo was included in the City Creatures anthology.

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