How Not to Tell People about Penguins
The most instructive review I ever heard came from a nine-year old girl. It ran:
“A nice man came to the school today to give us a talk. He told us more than we ever wanted to know about penguins.”
Ouch. Which left me thinking – do we often tell people more than they ever want to know about our interests? Do ducks like water? Of course do. We make mistakes over it all the time.
Mistake 1. Assume that they are interested
It’s hard to believe that anyone could not be interested in something that fascinates us deeply. I’m afraid, though, that there are people who even have no interest, utterly incredible as it may seem, in birds. It took me a long while to realize it could be true. But I now have a standard conversation with one particular, couldn’t-give-a-damn-about-birds friend. “Seen any good birds, lately?” Says he. “Yup,” say I. “Both sorts: shit-hawks and dicky birds.” That leaves him entirely satisfied, and then we can move on to topics that really do interest us both, such as the quality of the beer.
Mistake 2. If they are interested, assume that they are really interested
The number of people with a passing interest in our passion outnumbers enthusiasts by 37 to 1. Well, OK, I made up that number, but I’m sure it’s at least double figures. That means that we have to be awfully careful when they unwittingly show their interest in our presence. I now realize that if I hear someone say “I saw a Pine Siskin on my feeder today” it does not grant me permission to rabbit on about the primary extension and crossing wingtips of the White-rumped Sandpiper and other such deeply fascinating topics.
Mistake 3. If they are really interested, assume that they are really interested in exactly what you are really interested in
Every once in a while a genuine birder, someone who doesn’t automatically laugh if I say “Prothonotary Warbler,” visits my house. The urge to pounce with my prized collection of bird photographs is almost impossible to resist. The important thing, I’ve found, is to recognize the symptoms of catatonia as early as possible. Glazed eyes are a fairly good clue. Not having said a word in response to your wise observations for 30 minutes is another. And you can be fairly sure that you’re pushing things a bit too far if they slump to the floor unconscious.
Mistake 4. Shut up about your passion entirely
It’s a good job there are lots of mistakes to be made, or I’d have run out of material for these essays long ago. This particular mistake, though, will almost certainly be made if you’ve committed Mistakes 1–3 often enough, and have belatedly recognized the fact. But it’s time for the mistakes to stop. It’s a moral imperative not to make Mistake 4. The natural world needs ambassadors. If you’re aware of Mistakes 1–3, and as a result wear your learning lightly, you can fulfil that role. There’s many ways. You can casually point out the Bald Eagle in flight, and electrify someone who has never recognized one before. You can keep your hummingbird feeders properly placed and filled, as they can leave visitors from distance places utterly entranced. You can make your garden as nature-friendly as possible, and give children joy that will stay with them all their lives. And you can wear your binoculars with pride. Small things, but they help move the world in the right direction.