Recent reminiscing about my 6th grade experience conjured up some other long repressed childhood memories. Back then I used to pal around with several close friends -- there was Steve S, Steve E, Steve B and Craig. [Side note: my mother once revealed to me that she had considered naming me Steve when I was born. Bullet dodged there!]
As with most kids, I was interested in almost everything science – I wanted to know about the natural world in the most detailed way. My parents bought me a set of illustrated encyclopedias; and a human body book (the identical book was given to my wife by her parents when she was my age). This encyclopedia explained barometric pressure, photosynthesis, the light spectrum of hidden colors and about animals, vegetables and minerals. I couldn't get enough.
My world was filled with exploration and discovery. I had a rock collection, a butterfly collection, a bottle cap collection (ok, so the last one may not be science). My father allowed me use of his tools so I was free to indulge my imagination and build things from scraps of wood gleaned from local construction sites.
At this time I was also receiving my mandatory religious instruction: catechism classes taught by Mideval looking nuns at my dad’s Catholic church. Instruction here had little to do with learning beyond memorizing strict rules and odd prayer rituals. In church, it appeared, my world stopped making sense.
Buddy Steve E was also Catholic and so we spent a lot of time together. It was not unusual for us to kneel together to receive communion on Sunday. Steve seemed to share my enthusiasm for making things and exploring. One day I related an observation to Steve E -- I had been noticing bird calls. I made a particularly exciting (and at the time, I thought unique) discovery when I noticed the increased racket some birds made when they noticed a neighborhood cat had been in the yard. The usually happy singing bird calls had changed into alarm-sounding squawks at the presence of the cat. I formed a hypothesis: bird calls were not just random sounds but actually a form of animal communication in a language unique to their species. The birds were "talking" to each other. As with so many things I learned, I shared my hypothesis with my friend Steve E.
The following day when Steve E and I got together to play, he was quite grim; he seemed rather upset, actually. He said he had told his mother what I had discovered about birds. He was anxious to set me straight: “I talked to my Mom about what you said. She is a Sunday School teacher and she said that birds don’t talk.”
I was taken aback… this ran counter to what I had observed about birds reactions to danger. But what troubled me more was how would being a Sunday school teacher give Steve’s mom prerogative to denounce such an idea with such absolution? The concept of birds communicating with each other appeared to be threatening from a religious perspective. I was deeply troubled by this response.
I had already been taught the early stories of the Bible; Genesis and God’s [supposed] creation of the world. From my most earliest years I already assumed and accepted these as "generalized" stories crafted back in a time in history when there were no microscopes, telescopes, prisms, or any tools for that matter whereby man could measure and observe nature larger or smaller than the capabilities of the human eye. The Bible stories were merely allegories; I understood that. But to deny real world observation because it allegedly contradicted the “holy book”!
That incident set me on a path on which I remain to this day. I believe that the universe is infinitely large, that the particles comprising atoms are incredibly small – and I believe there is substantial evidence that birds do indeed "talk"... and eloquently so.