I am daring to share the following with you, with Hannah’s permission. I do so because, we are all educators and, as I often express, education is like throwing seeds into the wind. Usually, we don’t know how, or even if, the seeds take root.
Hannah has gifted me an example of how a simple act from 22 years ago may have contributed to someone’s path. Yes, I cried upon reading this. I am crying again now.
I wanted to give you this memory you so appreciated hearing. If I were an artist, I would draw or paint or somehow physically create this moment for you. Instead, as a linguist, I will do my best to describe it.
A flurry of sensory information was hitting my not-yet-developed brain, so I don’t have many specifics for this memory. I know two things: this memory is one of my first, and I was on the Gikumi, so I felt safe. [Gikumi was the beautiful wooden boat then used by Stubbs Island Whale Watching].
Sight: I sat facing one of the doorways, so my view of the outside was framed. Strangers swiftly appeared and disappeared as they walked along the deck. The land gently rose and fell when some wake hit the boat. It wasn’t too bright for my young, blue eyes. I know now that a slightly cloudy day makes for better nature watching…enough light but no glare.
Sound: The radio blared with voices and static. Captain Jim lowered the volume. Boats engines hum in the distance. A dozen strangers’ voices chatter, so there must not have been whales yet. Something about whales makes us go silent. I’ve always liked that. Even my busy, loud brain goes silent with them.
Smell: Coffee. Mom always had coffee. The breeze never quite made it around that doorway, so the smell of the ocean would arrive later.
Touch: Mom had on a rain jacket, so the arms that surrounded me felt a bit loud for my fingers. Some people understand that a feeling can be loud. It is like how linen is not smooth or rough, but somehow loud to feel. My life jacket provided me with consistent, surrounding pressure, like a hug. I never minded wearing it. Sitting on Mom’s lap, I didn’t have to worry about balance. She held me tightly as the waves made the boat rock. This is a comforting feeling for me, like a vertical rocking chair.
Taste: Captain Jim gave me a cookie. Yum.
The boat continued to glide forward. Suddenly, there was a pickup of chatter and movement. My eyes darted around. Too young to listen to or understand a naturalist talk, I didn’t really know the kinds of creatures that could appear or nature I could experience.
Then, a familiar face appeared in the doorway. It was your kind, sociable, empathetic, and passion-filled face. Your face had excitement in it. Not on it, like a painter choosing an emotion for the subject or a reaction learned through customer service. The excitement was in it. It was true. You said something to Mom, and she plopped me down from her lap and lifted me over the door frame.
This is the vivid moment in my memory. I don’t have much of a mind’s eye. I can’t “see” anything when I read books, and I always thought “picture this” was a metaphor, not an actual instruction. But in my mind, I can see blue-grey sky with your hand reaching down for mine. I take your hand, and it feels warm. You guide me to the bow and position me by the rail. You squat down so you can talk to me, not over me. Your left arm is around me, holding me safe and steady. Your right hand switches between holding the rail and pointing to the water. You brought me out to see the Dall’s Porpoise riding Gikumi’s bow.
This is when I feel the cool wind on my face and smell the slightly salty water. It smells green and blue. The open ocean just smells blue to me, but where we are also smells green. I now know it is the lower salinity, but you intelligently didn’t try to educate me on that fact. Instead, you instruct me to look at how the porpoises glide through the water and move up and down for air. I see the water turn white when they disturb the surface. I hear the puffs of them breathing. You point to their tails and tell me to look at how fast they can go.
I don’t have the ability yet to “wonder” in the sense of pondering or thinking, but I do have the ability to “wonder” in the sense of awe. This new information could have skidded past my brain as unintelligible data too complicated to process. But you took the time to help me see it and help me learn it. You crouched down to my physical and mental level to help me see what you see in this incredible world.
This moment sparked the joy that began my passion for cetaceans. It isn’t the joy that is synonymous with happiness. It is the Joy that C.S. Lewis talks about: an unsatisfied desire for and lifelong pursuit of God. He describes Joy as a longing that comes to you in pangs as you head in the right direction toward God. At this point in my life, I simply consider God to be the ultimate source of goodness. My pangs of Joy are when I feel like I am heading in the right direction toward whatever meaning my life is supposed to have. I believe it is good to pursue knowledge of the world around me, even if it is just for knowledge’s sake. At least, it is good to pursue finding meaning. I think I found my purpose in killer whale research. You sparked that Joy, and I thank you.
Hannah is clearly an extraordinary writer, and human. Her undergraduate degree is in Computer Science and Computational Thinking with a minor in Philosophy, she is pursuing a Master’s in Linguistics. From Hannah: “I want to combine these into a PHD in Natural Language Processing, studying the language of killer whales. Dr. John Ford discerned their linguistic variation, and I hope to use artificial intelligence to discern any meaning that may be present.”