Sunday, December 7, 2008

Biology in Action

This morning it was cold. Not surprising, given that it's the second week of December in the midwest. Still, it wasn't quite as cold as it has been, so at 9:30 (practically the crack of dawn for a Sunday) I shuffled outside to catch a horse and go for a ride.

By the time I had Brandy completely groomed and saddle, she was shivering up a storm. That poor mare doesn't grow much of a winter coat, and it's bad enough that she even has to wear a turnout blanket if it's anywhere near freezing. I figured I'd warm both of us up with a brisk jog around the neighboring 40 acres, so off we trotted.

The sun came out, although the wind was still bitter. After we'd been moving for a while, I noticed a recent-looking four-wheeler path into the woods. Adventure beckoned, so I headed off down the trail. It wound between some wicked thorn bushes and treacherous limbs, and ended at a rocky, half-dry creekbed. The water that remained formed a pool about 10 feet long and four feet wide, surrounded by decaying leaves and handsome, broken, mossed-covered stones.

I was in an inquisitive mood, so I dismounted and carefully led my mare to the edge of the water. She balked a little, but I was able to make it close enough to peer into the water. It was beautiful. A thin layer of smooth ice coated the top of the pool, giving a clear view to the bottom, somewhere under a foot down from the surface. Several dozen small fish (presumably minnows), ranging in length from two to six inches, skirted nervously from one end of the enclosure to the other upon my arrival. I watched them for a while, in awe of their ability to survive despite what seemed to be pretty rough odds: the drying of the creek, the freezing of the water, an apparent lack of abundance of food. I recalled a lesson from Chemistry about the special properties of H2O molecules. Water is an amazing compound. No other liquid would freeze in such a manner, allowing the delicate ecosystem of the fish to flourish over the harsh winter months.

After a careful examination of the minnows in their habitat, I took stock of my surroundings. The rocks to my right were covered in fine, brilliant green moss. What a coincidence! I had spent yesterday evening obsessing over the structure and reproduction of just this very thing in preparation for Tuesday's Botany exam. I had to get a closer look. I knelt down, pleased to get the opportunity to put my knowledge to the test. There were the archegonial and antheridial heads, the sites of gamete formation! And there, oh joy of joys, were the young sporophytes, tiny heads perched upon elongated stalks, growing up like parasites from their mother-plants! I couldn't believe my luck at noticing these tiny structures. I ran my hands along them to feel their pleasant softness. To my surprise, a fine stream of smoke came drifting out following my touch. I was perplexed. Once again, I touched them, and once again, the smoke appeared. Then I realized what should have been obvious--this "smoke" was actually a cloud of microscopic spores being realized from between the peristomal teeth. This was biology in action; a literal breath of life. What an epiphany!

I sat there for a long while, until Brandy made it quite clear that she was fed up with my nonsense. After snuffling the ground for something green to eat, she finally settled for a dead stick, breaking it irreverently with her front teeth and crunching loudly and unhappily. I had to rescue her and pry it from her mouth lest she poke herself in the tongue or choke on a splinter. I remounted and started the ride back, a feeling of peace upon me.

It's times like these that reaffirm my choice of major. I may not always enjoy the frantic memorization, or the uninteresting facts, or the boring lab sessions, but in the end, it's all worth it. Life is fascinating, and biology is perfect. Could there be anything more beautiful?

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