When I was a freshman in college, decades ago, the professor of my biology class, which I took to fulfill the science requirement, asked me my major. "English," I said, and he replied, "Good." I not only got the message, I agreed with him. I did pass the class, but then grateful I never needed to take another science class again, I immersed myself in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Fitzgerald. I read poetry about skylarks and daffodils and mighty oaks, but could I recognize them? Did I really see them? Not so much.
In our years of living on our Ohio country property, however, I began making up for that lack in my education and developed an interest in flora and fauna and all things that flew. As I walked to the garage, I would glance over towards the barn to see if the Great Blue Heron was in the pond. Would I see the awkward lift-off and escape? I started noticing football-shaped red-tail hawks as I drove country roads or even along interstates on my frequent Ohio to Minnesota sojourns. In spring I welcomed the return of red-winged blackbirds and barn swallows, and in the winter I kept track of all the birds at the feeder outside my office window. The blue jays came first thing in the morning and then all other hungry feathered friends felt free to follow.
Soon I began accumulating guidebooks and other books about nature and the seasons and even went on guided bird walks hoping to appear somewhat practiced, even though I still felt awkward with my binoculars. Is birdwatching one of those signs of aging? I don't know, but I know I thrill when I identify a bird as something other than a robin, jay, cardinal or sparrow. I have much to learn, but I feel myself making room for a new passion. I feel "what I know" expanding. I am stretching, living the label of life-long learner.
Recently, I became a volunteer at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. No, I am not a guide--no one would learn much going on a nature walk with me. Instead I work in the --you guessed it--the bookstore. I am, in fact, one of their best customers. Watch my pile of books grow! Along with learning the stock and finding books for customers, I expand my knowledge base when I ask customers what they saw on their walk or when one of the naturalists stops in and shares information. "We have 300 kinds of lilacs and 150 varieties of crabapple trees in our gardens." A young woman, taking a break from studying for her university finals, reported excitedly that she had seen a scarlet tanager. "Think black-winged redbird." Who wouldn't smile at that!
The other day I was alone in the store and was engrossed in a book called Teaching the Trees, Lessons from the Forest by Joan Maloof. In an essay called "Tree Hugger" I read these words: "My students are not used to hearing someone speak with such tenderness, with such fiercely protective words, about the nonhuman things of this world. It makes them a bit uncomfortable; they wiggle in their seats. I know that each of them really longs to find something to care about deeply. But they are still wondering, waiting for the thing that will claim them, like this living world has so obviously claimed me, their teacher. I cannot teach them their place, define their passion. I can only assure them that they do have one."
Probably more than one. Hopefully, new passions will be discovered, as time goes one. That's the way I feel about this new learning I am doing. And as if to reward this thought, I heard a knocking on the office door. I went out into the hallway to see who was there. A sandhill crane was knocking on the glass of the door with her beak. I laughed out-loud, so amazed to see this bonus of my new life in Wisconsin, this symbol of new learning and new passion right outside the door.
Is there room in your life for a new passion? What new learning, new growth are you opening yourself to? Where are the spaces in your education and are they calling you now? I invite you to listen for the knocking of a crane in your life.
Note: The painting of the crane was done by a friend who, retired from teaching, has discovered a passion for painting. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org