Columns » Mom Takes Notes

Mom Takes Notes, July 2021


  • Elisa Järnefelt

During previous summers, my daughter and I have explored nature in Vermont by observing the animals and plants around us. "Look, there's a chipmunk running on a tree trunk! Look, can you see how the flowers have turned into berries now?"

This summer, these notions are accompanied by the kind of questions from a 4-year-old that make me ponder the very existence of nature, including humans. Not surprisingly, these questions often leave me struggling to provide a satisfying answer.

Why don't animals realize that roads are dangerous? Does the snapping turtle mom know that a predator ate its eggs? If mom birds like daddy birds who have bright colors (as they signal good health), who wants the daddy bird who is not in good health? Do turkey vultures eat dead beetles? When do humans die? When do humans become a different species?

Being the mom of a 4-year-old has made me resort to the toolkit from my academic research years. I often start with a classic conference maneuver: "That's a really great question," which buys me more time to think. After having collected my thoughts a bit, I do my best to give an honest reply. Rather than offer a clear answer, I often end up wondering out loud about several different options as I acknowledge that I only have a hunch, or that I really don't know. But in the end, I always add: "We can figure out if someone has studied this. If not, it's something that still needs to be researched."

Our conversations remind me of something I ended up somewhat forgetting when I was doing research and focusing so much on the testing and answering: how to wonder.

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