Isn’t Necessarily Right

Mama Gets Ready

Despite the picture, this Wandering isn’t about birds, it’s about writing.  Well, it’s about birds, too, because the birds are what started my thoughts wandering down this trail.

When I was a kid, everyone knew that animals—especially “simple” animals like the sparrows featured in these photos—were basically organic computers programmed by that mysterious force called “instinct.”  Simple animals didn’t teach their young.  At best the young “imprinted” and thus became organic photocopies of their parents.

Turns out, what everyone knows isn’t necessarily right.  Even sparrows—like the delightful family Jim photographed on our bird block—teach their children.  How well in this case is an interesting question, since bird blocks aren’t exactly natural, but we watched for quite a long while as Mama Sparrow taught her kids to feed themselves.

Isn’t That Delicious?

I hope those lessons will extend to encouraging them to sample the plants we have growing in the backyard, many of which we let go to seed to provide food for the birds.

It turns out that “bird brained” birds aren’t the only animals who teach or at least learn by example.  I’ve seen many guinea pigs teaching their young what is and isn’t safe to eat.  Even when they’re not related, younger ones will look to their seniors for guidance.  This can cause a few unintentional ripples down the chain.  We’ve had a couple very dietarily opinionated guinea pigs convince their associates that something perfectly fine—even beneficial for guinea pigs—is “yucky.”  Currently, it’s carrots.  Sigh…

Many types of wild canines not only teach their young to hunt, they take advantage of their ability to regurgitate at will to carry back live prey—small rodents are a favorite choice—so the kids can practice in the safely of the home.

Nonetheless, despite ample evidence to the contrary, humans continue to superimpose their preconceived notions on animals, rather than viewing the animals as distinct individuals.  Not all cats cold-shoulder their humans when they’ve been away.  Mine tend to follow me around, apparently to make sure I won’t do it again.  But who knows?  Maybe they’re more like teenagers hiding the pizza boxes and beer bottles so their parents won’t know they’ve had a party.

My friend (and fellow writer) Walter Jon Williams once pointed out to me a minor error in one of my novels.  I sighed and said, “Well, I guess that makes this an alternate history, then.”  He laughed and very kindly replied, “It’s not what you know you don’t know that’ll get you; it’s what you don’t know you don’t know that gets you every time.”

That’s a good piece of advice to remember when writing.  Next time you start writing a standoffish cat or an eager-to-please dog or a faithful steed or a stupid cow or…  Well, you get the idea.  Next time you start to write what everyone knows, take a closer look.  It’s highly likely that what everyone knows isn’t actually true.

Now that I think about it, that’s good advice for life as well.

4 Responses to “Isn’t Necessarily Right”

  1. Harried Harry Says:

    You are right, we “assume” we know everything, but really we only know a little bit. Your thoughts do help me understand how much I really don’t know. Good thoughts and enjoy your writing in the alternate universe you have created.

  2. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    I’ve never trusted what everybody knows. I always have to fact check for myself. The internet has made this need of mine much easier. I remember being excited when my parents bought an encyclopedia for our house so I didn’t have to walk to the library.
    We know we shouldn’t assume, but so many people do. It’s more fun to search out the answers for ourselves. That’s my two cents worth anyway.

    • janelindskold Says:

      One of my sisters and I made a pact not to argue about what we could look up. Our family encyclopedia was so ancient, this did not solve everything, but it sure helped!

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