Nearly a decade ago, when our son was still too young to easily read for himself, he declared an early interest in mechanical science, leaving behind the shelves of “Curious George” and “Mother Goose” at the local library, and turning instead to books about electronics and engineering.
On his nightstand, ready for each evening’s bedtime story, were the exploded diagrams of “The Way Things Work,” along with a history of aeronautics and an especially tedious volume on recent innovations in vacuum cleaners.
None of the books had anything resembling a plot, and reading them aloud was like giving a public recitation of a VCR manual. My wife and I began drawing straws to see which parent would suffer the nightly ordeal of working through chapters that put us, rather than our son, into a deep sleep.
Part of the exquisite torture grew from the fact that my wife and I, both liberal arts majors, usually had not the slightest idea what we were reading. Parsing passages on hydraulic pressure or alternating current, we could not have been more out of our depth if we’d been asked to sing the Danish national anthem.
This is the point, I suppose, at which I should offer up my story as telling evidence of our boy’s budding genius. But truth be told, he didn’t seem to grasp the material, either.
What our son craved, even more than mere facts, was the sound of science. Those long Latin phrases, trailing like ivy across the page, were a kind of poetry to him, a music that made meaning beside the point.
I sometimes wonder if I’ve fallen into bird-watching for much the same reason — for the chance to dip into the language of ornithology, which ranks among the oddest dialects of our mother tongue.
All of this came to mind a few days ago, when the afternoon mail brought a fresh copy of “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” newly revised in a second edition.
The book offers beautiful pictures and a wealth of information about nesting, birdsong and flight. But what I like best are the bird names, which are more lyrical than anything Dr. Seuss could invent. Here we find Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel, the Blue-footed Booby, the Pelagic Cormorant, the Jabiru.
Who could resist the Tricolored Heron, the Reddish Egret, the White-faced Ibis?
I think up excuses to mention the Hook-billed Kite, the Semipalmated Plover, the Northern Jacana.
Our sorry world, so bruised by bloodshed and want, can’t be all that bad if it also contains creatures as unlikely as the Northern Lapwing, the Black-necked Stilt, the American Oystercatcher.
If I were still young enough for bedtime stories, I’d like to consider the Upland Sandpiper as my eyelids grew heavy, or the Little Curlew, the Wimbrel, the Bar-tailed Godwit — an aviary of wonder, watching over me as I slept.