Yesterday I went to Fairchild, a botanical garden in Miami. This weekend they had an orchid festival which my parents planned on going to, and they invited me to join them. It was good for me to go get some sunshine, and I happen to be in one of the few places drenched in it while the rest of the country has spent months trying to remember what it’s like. The three of us walked around the grounds for awhile, but eventually I veered off, since I’m not much of an orchid enthusiast anyway.
I sat on a table by one of the garden’s small lagoons. A mother with her daughter, who was probably around 12, came and sat at the next one.
“Ooooohhh, Erica, look at the anhinga!”
There was a double-crested cormorant sunning itself across the lagoon.
“That’s an anhinga, Erica.”
Erica stared at the bird, possibly memorizing the features of double-crested cormorants so she can one day tell her own daughter they’re anhingas.
Then the dad showed up. He sat next to his wife. Erica walked up to the edge of the lagoon. I watched from behind the shield of my dark glasses.
“Oh my God, Mommy! There’s a turtle here!”
Dad got up to have a look.
In a surprisingly nasal voice for an older man, he said, “Oh, Erica, that’s an alligator snapping turtle.”
It was a Florida softshell turtle. There are many of them in Fairchild. They look absolutely nothing like alligator snapping turtles, which to my understanding remain completely hidden at the bottom of muddy waterbodies anyway. The softshell swam over to the edge of the lagoon, just a few feet away from Erica. She studied its features, memorizing them so she could one day pass on the information. Dad continued dropping the knowledge bomb.
“Erica, the alligator snapping turtle is the only turtle, eh, eh, that can, eh, you know, snap its mouth.”
Erica nodded as her father spoke to her.
“They are super, super dangerous.”
It almost seemed like he didn’t actually believe it was an alligator snapping turtle, because why else would he let his daughter stand right next to an animal that was so super, super dangerous? Softshells are completely harmless. Somewhere deep down inside, he must somehow know how much of an idiot he is.
I am of course also ignorant of what many, many animals are, including in my native South Florida. But when I claim to know the identity of an animal – bird, turtle, or anything else – I make sure I’m one hundred percent positive. If I’m not sure, then I say, “I think it’s a such and such. We’ll have to look it up later.”
If we believe ecoliteracy is important, as I assume even these folks do, since they were trying to teach their daughter the names of different animals, we have to treat it like it’s important and not claim to know something unless we are completely sure. There’s no shame in saying you think an animal is something, but are not absolutely positive. Checking the guidebook back home or in the field is gratifying in its own way, not to mention a nice bonding experience between parent and child.
Of course, if I was a true champion of ecoliteracy, I would’ve spoken up.
“Erica, don’t listen to your parents. That’s a cormorant and that’s a softshell. Seems mom and dad are wrong about everything.”
Maybe that would’ve gotten her ready to be a teenager.