Thursday, July 9, 2009

Rural Delivery: The Natural

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1995. All rights reserved.

My yearling climbs stairs, again and again and again. His little boy face all set in concentration, he lowers one leg deliberately over the step, collects his balance, and then brings down the second.

He’s been going up and down this three-step entryway time and again for at least fifteen minutes. And unless I break him off from it, it seems, he may go on all night.

No one asked him to climb stairs. I doubt anyone even showed him how. Driven by a compulsion I am trying to understand, he practices his climbing with a relentlessness only an OIympic athlete could match.

There is much about my firstborn I would not have imagined. Like how he points at butterflies and trucks and fence posts and asks me — “Eh?” — for an explanation. Or the way he comprehends the meanings of words which he has not yet spoken.

No one had to teach him how to empty drawers or open books or pursue kittens. Something deep inside compels him to grab and pull and scramble and run headlong into the unknown.

Perhaps parenting always prompts questions of nature and nurture. But as I watch my boy turn for another go at the stairs I wonder how much of our walk through life is by choice and how much is by innate urge. Can we keep still or are we driven, like he is, to keep moving? Do we choose our course or are we programmed?

A quick look around the neighborhood provides other examples of instinctive behavior. No one teaches the young colt to run or calves to suckle. Chickens naturally peck at the earth and otters are compelled, it seems, to swim and swim and swim.

In the peanut-size brain of the squirrel are wordless directives sparking across tiny synapses for scrambling up and down trees and balancing body weight along narrow limbs. From somewhere along that curving spine comes the urge to scrounge for nuts, to finger and turn, to nibble and nick, and to dig and bury.

The brown thrasher’s skull is smaller still, yet it can hold a repertoire of 1,200 different birdsongs and the compulsion to sing from briar patches and thickets. In its mind are built-in controls for navigating its body at high speeds between tangled tree limbs and coming to sudden stops clinging to bouncing branches.

Given a cerebral cortex and 3 billion neurons to play with, my son’s conceptual capabilities are many times greater than those of birds or squirrels. He may use that brain power to build bridges or write symphonies or collect stamps. The choice will be his, depending on what influences and opportunities he pursues.

But at his most basic level my little boy also runs naked with the animals. He digs and tosses and climbs. His hand reaches up for a finger to steady him.

And he already knows more than he or I can ever say.

No comments: