I still remember my surprise when I began to see that I would not be my father. While enamored by my grandfather’s work, buying and selling cattle throughout Colorado, I assumed that something more like plant pathology would probably be me, as it had been for my dad. Or at least bringing my grandfather’s life and my father’s life together, like being a veterinarian.
And if a veterinarian, one that worked with livestock, especially cattle. Nothing very dog and cat for me. But in high school I found that I didn’t really like biology that much, and began to wonder, “So what will you do, Steven?”
In one of the surprises of history, a generation later my son Elliott loved biology, and became… a veterinarian. Mostly in the quietness of my heart, I hoped he would love cows, and find a way to be their doctor. Rural Virginia would do, but so would the ranching country of Colorado, or someplace in the West.
Instead he chose to study veterinary medicine in a school that emphasized the rest of the world, and while his internships took him to the cattle of Wyoming and the sheep of Idaho, most of his time in those years he spent in India, Africa, and Latin America. He did spend a summer with cows in Mozambique, but by that time he had discovered zoonotics, a strange family of plagues that live in the middle of animal health, human health, and the environment, making them horribly complex.
A book review in the Post today, “How Diseases Travel from the Jungle to Your Backyard,” is about zoonotics. We now live with names like Ebola, SARS, HIV, Lyme disease, and West Nile Virus, all zoonotic diseases [that] “merit our urgent concern. They constitute the majority of all illnesses that strike humans.” The reviewer continues, “Such zoonotic diseases are particularly confounding because they are so hard to eradicate.”
I would have been happy for cows in Colorado. But my son is not his father either. In some ways he is more like his grandfather. I only wish that my dad were still alive, able to see his grandson love what he loved, even if the diseases that created their callings are very different.
A wounded world it is, so whether plants or animals, or even some globally-impacting combination that we don’t even yet understand, it is good work to work against what brings sorrow and anguish—whether our vocation is a cattle buyer, a plant pathologist, a veterinarian, a professor—or a butcher, a baker, a candlestick-maker. In one of Bono’s best images, to tear a corner off of the darkness. It is all good work for the sake of the world.