Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One Can Get Used to Anything

In Zoology Lab today I gleefully assisted my partner in the brutal dissection of a live earthworm. First we pinned it to the dissecting tray (in its struggle to free itself it tore off its posterior segments) and then we opened a slit along its dorsal surface, running from the anterior ganglia down past the muscular band. The worm writhed while we separated the sides and pinned them down. We then explored the internal organs: seminal vesicles, nerve cords, pharynx, crop, and the like. We held the bloodied, miserable creature underneath a low-powered microscope to observe the beating of the five hearts. The worm still wasn’t quite dead yet when we discarded its butchered form in the trash.

A bit of a melodramatic description, perhaps, but was it I who was saying, just a few short weeks ago, that I couldn’t bear to decapitate a termite or pour some microscopic flagellates down the drain? Really? I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. “It is simple and brutal: A person can get used to anything, even killing.”

Yes, indeed. And I’m a bit ashamed of myself. But I can’t help reminding myself of the loftier goals and “purpose” behind all of this. Not to cut myself undeserved slack, but the intentions, as they say, are what matter, and they are noble.

For this same class, we were given the assignment over break to collect a “microcosm”—a sample of water from a creek, pond, or puddle to observe and test. I took my missing very seriously. On Sunday, despite the somewhat cold, windy weather, I tramped out through the pasture, glass jar in tow, and waded down to a place where rainwater runoff had cut a deep creak intertwined with sycamore roots. Dressed somewhat inappropriately in bulky Carhartt coveralls and cowboy boots with jingling spurs, I nevertheless waded deep into the flowing water, scraping substrate, collecting leaves, gathering algae and moss, and chasing after tiny shrimp-like amphipods with the grimness and persistence of a hunter. Once I had collected a satisfactory sample, I continued to amuse myself by grabbing at a crayfish (successful capture!) and leopard frog (not so much). Oh well. I’d forgotten how intoxicating splashing in a creek can be.

Today we looked at slides from our microcosms, and I was utterly delighted to observe the fantastic creatures that live quite literally in my own backyard. Paramecia, volvox algal colonies, diatoms, and, “walking” euplotes ciliates abounded. The professor was hugely impressed with the large amphipods nearly a centimeter long, the hundreds of copepods that swarmed the surface and were visible with the naked eye, and the numerous large planarian flatworms—the very same that we recently performed regenerative experiments on, but wild versions….how exciting to see a standard lab-raised specimen in its natural environment! The highlight of today’s viewing, however, was the single amoeba, which slowly crept along via cytoplasmic streaming and the extension of its lobopodia. The professor was in awe, too: “That’s the best amoeba I’ve ever seen,” she said, “even of the ones that I’ve ordered from the lab supply companies. Even the prepared specimens are extremely difficult to find.”

So, I’m glad to know that the wonder of life is still very much alive in me. I never cease to be amazed by how fascinating and remarkably complex the world is.

No comments: