Sunday, July 26, 2009

I Concur

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

--Walt Whitman

The simple fact that anything exists at all in the void of Infinity is astounding and mind-boggling, when one really starts thinking about it. Add to that conundrum the complexity and miracle of life, and the whole thing is beyond comprehension or explanation. Not that we don’t try, of course. In a few of my classes last year, I was taught about the structure and diversity of plants and invertebrate animals. I learned, for example, that Queen Anne’s Lace is nothing less than wild carrot. Pull a plant up from the ground and the bitter conical root emerges. Or how about the bdelloid rotifer, which is a multicellular aquatic animal capable of producing copies of itself without need for sexual reproduction? In some species, males have never been discovered, yet females continue to produce eggs which in turn hatch new, fully functioning rotifers. Fascinating. Tidbits such as these greatly increased my already-considerable appreciation for the world at large, and made me once again revert to childhood habits of kneeling in the mud by the creek, digging for signs of writhing nematode worms or tiny side-swimming crustaceans.

They fit together perfectly, you know, their parts. Throughout the eons they have evolved from that initial spark in the primeval soup or mandate of God or what-have-you. And those parts, the chomping mandibles, snapping pinchers, clicking legs, and beating hearts, are in turn composed of carbohydrates and lipids and proteins, long strands of amino acids, rows of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon. And within each molecule atoms, and within each atom whizzing electrons, the fat, torpid neutrons, pulsating protons, and so many particles we have neither named nor seen. And in them, what? Bits of sonic string squirming as frantically as the nematodes, as quantum physics would have it? Unimaginable energy forces? Divinity?

The second we think we’re at the brink of unearthing the final hidden secret of the universe, we’ve discovered the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, we’re at the brink of understanding all the clockwork of Creation, the proverbial rug is pulled out from beneath our feet and we find that, once again, we know nothing. Things don’t add up. Space, apparently, doesn’t play nice and behave in an orderly fashion. The old laws of physics don’t apply anymore. If there’s a unifying law of science, we’ve yet to find it. Well didst thou speak, indeed, Athena’s wisest son.

And so, with the knowledge we so desperately crave held maddeningly beyond our reach (like the Queen Anne's root on a stick, I suppose), we can choose either to chase it, or perhaps instead to simply sit and bask in its overwhelming beauty. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course, but for me I’ll leave physics to the physicists and mathematicians. Biology is interesting, important, and life-saving, but when push comes to shove, I think I’m on Walt’s side. Yessir, let’s all stop for a moment, turn over a pebble, and admire the ants and pillbugs as they scurry away in all their invertebrate glory.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Metamorphosis

Now I don’t intend to write about Ovid’s or Kafka’s takes on the subject (I have read the latter, but not the former). Rather, I’d prefer to mull over the little miracles I’ve been personally witnessing over the past few weeks. It started with the single spotting of an abandoned cicada nymph casing. The result of a molt to adulthood, the ugly pinchered skin was left behind, while the newly reborn adult began its aboveground life after more than a decade of blindly burrowing, feeding, and growing under the earth. Split at the top, brittle, hollow, but still completely and perfectly formed, its empty legs clung to the trunk of a tree. I plucked it from its perch, examined it, then discarded it thoughtlessly. Then, over the course of the next few days, I found more and more and more of the molted remnants of immature insects. They were everywhere—I didn’t have to actively search for them. I would stumble upon them stupidly, or they would suddenly appear before me as I went about my day, and I pictured the deluge of cicada nymphs digging their way out of the soil, clawing up a branch, shedding, emerging, drying, and droning off to begin the summer song. Fantastic.

And then there were the tadpoles swimming thickly in every puddle, every pond, every stock tank. In addition to the big fat lethargic resident toads, I’ve been seeing smaller specimens hopping around light sources, looking for bugs attracted to the brightness. Then I put two and two together. Huh.

The birdhouses, too, are full of young’uns. While their transformation may not be quite so dramatic, it’s still miraculous to think about the whole process of fertilization, which leads to an embryo in an egg, which hatches to reveal a hideous pink monstrosity that wobbles and cries through its gaping mouth and then, somehow, sprouts feathers and takes gracefully to the air. One set of fledglings was in the process of leaving the nest. I caught one when it clumsily flew into the garage and took it outside to rescue it from the dogs. It struggled and squirmed in my hand, alert, ready to spread its wings. How?

Change. Metamorphosis. Evolution—in the most literal sense of the word, as well as in the most hated Darwinian terms. But isn’t there something immensely beautiful about the whole thing? Something ugly because something magnificent; pieces are made whole; improvements are achieved. And this is not to play into the whole evolution-is-climbing-towards-the-ultimate-pinnacle (namely, mankind), because I don’t believe that at all. But, still, the drumbeats of progress create extraordinary things. Isn’t a butterfly more stunning than a caterpillar, or, to turn it around, doesn’t the butterfly’s glory make the caterpillar’s life that much more exceptional? Perhaps one completes the other—the yin and the yang.

Growth, anyway. Coming to fruition. Realizing one’s potential. Why are we so afraid of change?

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Curious Adventures of Jade the Tortoise

The other day, while returning from a jaunt in the pasture, I edged along the dog fence and caught sight of something curious. The three hounds were sniffing and pawing at a round object that I at first glance took to be a buffalo chip with the word DADDY written on it (the mind is a curious thing, you know). A closer observation showed that the lump was in fact the shell of a box turtle, branded in large white letters with JADE. I wondered if Jade’s darling pet had gotten loose, but then realized that Jade was probably the turtle’s name. Huh. The dachshund was beginning to gnaw on the edge of the shell, so I hopped the fence to rescue the poor creature. I picked it up to have a better look, noting that its shell was also adorned with glitter nail polish. When I turned it around to face me, the hinge opened a peep and two indignant, glaring red eyes stared back. Then the hinge slammed back shut, and that was that. In that short instant, though, I had noticed that the coloration on the tortoise’s head and feet pointed to the likelihood of its being male. Poor Jade. I hope he’s secure in his masculinity.

Well, I carried Jade safely away from the prying jaws of the dogs and set him down gingerly in the pasture. He seemed bound and determined to stay tightly clamped in his shell, but when I returned later, he was long gone off somewhere—on a new adventure, no doubt. I rather pictured him slowly and determinedly crawling, crawling, crawling back to his home and the little girl who named him, à la The Incredible Journey. Heh.

But I had to wonder exactly where he had been in his travels. The nearest house with children is the better part of a mile away, and they don’t seem like the type who would decorate a pet tortoise and set him free. So where had ol’ Jade come from? And where was he headed off to? I read online that box turtles can live for 40 years or more. That’s a long time for little nondescript reptile. I bet he’s traveled the country; I bet he’s enjoyed the freedom of the open road; I bet he’s sired hundreds of turtle babies (turtlets?) that hatched from their eggs and stumbled out to meet the bright, fast world. By now Jadey-boy’s probably halfway to Arkansas, where he’s meeting up with some long-lost amigos for a Kerouac-style adventure.

I would have snapped a picture of his brief detour and visit, but alas! my digital camera broke and I’m most forlorn. Damn.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Leapin' and Hoppin'

The other night, as it were, I had the opportunity, or perhaps obligation, to ride late at night. Never before had I taken advantage of the brightness of the full moon to enjoy the relative coolness of murky summer nights. The preparation was simple enough—I walked out through the pasture, found and captured a belligerent Brandy, bridled her, and scrambled up bareback. The lights from the house, barn, and telephone pole were distracting, so I turned the mare off towards the blackness of the woods.

And if I ever lose my mouth
All my teeth, north and south
Oh, if I ever lose my mouth
I won’t have to talk no more

She was understandably reluctant and less than thrilled about the midnight excursion, and I soon found that horses’ night vision is not all it’s cracked up to be. Brandy has slightly limited sight in one eye due to an old injury, but that surely couldn’t have accounted for all her stumbling, or the tree she very nearly collided with head-on before I averted disaster and pulled her off to the side. Still, it was a peaceful ride, with the nearly-full moon shining so brilliantly as to make the stars as faint as in the city.

And if I ever lose my eyes
All my colors all run dry
Oh, if I ever lose my eyes
I won’t have to cry no more

Riding back through the treeline, I noticed how once we were fully enclosed in the woods, we were immersed in utter blackness. Yet, looking through the upper limbs or around the bend, I could see the silver light playing on branches, bark, and the rustling grass. The striated ground beneath my horse’s hooves—my God!—moonshadows. And with that realization, the Cat Stevens song started running through my head.

And if I ever lose my hands
Lose my plow, lose my land
Oh, if I ever lose my hands
I won’t have to work no more

From time to time, I would hear the dull pounding of hooves on mud rapidly approaching. Sawyer. He couldn’t bear to let Brandy stray too far away, and whenever she disappeared from his view, he’d call frantically and charge up to make sure she hadn’t, say, fallen into a bottomless pit or been eaten by a rabid tiger. Thus reassured, he would show off by jumping the ditch, tossing his mane with its luxurious blond braids, loping circles, and behaving like a typical lovestruck teen.

And if I ever lose my legs
I won’t moan, and I won’t beg
Oh, if I ever lose my legs
I won’t have to walk no more

And I rode on—a few laps through the pasture, weaving persimmons in the woods, around the arena and roundpen…and that was it. I brushed the horse, turned her out, went inside to take a shower, and went to bed, whereupon I promptly forgot the exhilaration of living purely for the experientialist moment.

I’m being followed by a moonshadow
Moonshadow, moonshadow
Leapin’ and hoppin’ on a moonshadow
Moonshadow, moonshadow

Did it take you long to find me?
I ask the faithful light
Oh, did it take you long to find me?
And are you going to stay the night?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Letting Go

Allow me to recall and retell a story I first heard when I was nine years old. It has stayed with me since then, and the refrain will at times run through my head inexplicably. I’m not so certain what the moral is, but there’s certainly a lesson here.

An elderly Greek man lay dying after a long and fulfilling life. He looked around at his devoted family assembled together at his bedside, then he gazed out across the beautiful scenery that characterized his home and all that he had known and loved throughout his many years. What wonderful memories he had accumulated, what experiences, what untold things he had learned! This was the island where his ancestors had lived and died. This was the place where he had spent his boyhood, met his true love, married, and raised his family. In that sea had he worked as a fisherman; through those mountains had he walked and pondered and grown old. He sighed with contentment and resignation, and with a final effort he let his right hand fall to the ground beside his bed. “This is Crete,” he thought, “and I love Crete, and I can never let it go.” So saying, he scooped up a handful of the cool earth and, pulling his clenched fist up to his breast, breathed his last.

And then he was standing at the gates of Heaven. Ornate and gilded, they marked the entrance to a kingdom no mortal has ever known. Upon them was the inscription, “Leave behind all traces of your former life, and then ye may enter into the realm of Everlasting Paradise.” The man moved to step forward, but the gates remained fixed and solid. Then realization dawned upon him, and he looked down at the clay still clutched in his hand. “No,” said he. “This is Crete, and I love Crete, and I will never let it go.”

And then the gates opened, and Saint Peter stepped through. “You have been a good man,” he told the Greek, “and you have well deserved your place in Heaven. But the laws are such that you must cast aside all earthly things before you are allowed to enter through this portal to Eternal Life. Now, free the contents of your hand and join me here.”

“No,” said the man. “If I cannot take it with me, then I will wait outside forever. For this is Crete, and I love Crete, and I will never let it go.”

But then a small boy slipped out from behind Saint Peter’s robe. The old man’s eyes widened in recognition, and then filled with tears. The child was the man’s grandson, who had died when he was only five years old. “Please, Papa,” he spoke. “Won’t you throw away that dirt and come inside to play with me?”

And the man loosened the grip in his fingers and the dust of Crete fell through, and the gates swung wide open, and there was a terrible and awesome light.

And when the man had stepped through and his eyes had adjusted, lo and behold, the island of Crete lay stretched out before him.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Least of My People

From time to time hummingbirds fly into our barn by mistake and, disoriented, become trapped despite the wide open doors and windows. They fly higher and higher, frantically beating at the rafters because they instinctively sense that upwards is the way to freedom. The white underside of the roof mimics the pale tones of the sky and further confuses them and they zip back and forth, buzzing pitifully, until they eventually discover the escape route.

An unlucky few, however, don’t find an opening until they collapse from utter exhaustion, literally unable to move and as helpless as a victim of diabetic shock. They crumple to the ground, weak and paralyzed. On several occasions last year we found the fallen birds and, recalling a long-ago presentation at a local nature center, attempted to resuscitate them with sugar water. The task fell to me once, and the hummingbird feeder was brought down. The miniscule creature was cradled in the palm of my hand. It would open its eyes for a moment, then close them again in a pathetic display of hopelessness. I forced its beak into the opening in the middle of the plastic flower and it lay motionless in that position for a few seconds, before withdrawing its head violently. We repeated this procedure a few times, and it soon became clear that the bird was not only drinking, but regaining strength visibly. It puffed itself up and squeaked a few times, then fed on its own. Then it shook, stood up straighter, and whizzed off into the wild blue yonder. It was a beautiful moment.*

I’ve been thinking lately that maybe what we need in our lives is a little compassion. Take the time, reach out, offer a little help or just live and let live. While I’m certainly wont to grasp too hard for a metaphor, the helpless hummingbird could certainly be compared to anyone and everyone we meet on the street, or really any other divine spark of life.

Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.

--Matthew 25:40

Can we somehow find personal fulfillment through our own kindnesses and good deeds? Religion and prophets would say so. By acts of compassion, we help not only the objects of our kindness, but also ourselves and our souls, if you’ll allow me to get a bit metaphysical here.

(I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Part of it is summer musings, part of it is parroting what I’ve been taught in philosophy books and religion classes. But it’s something to think about, anyway…)

Of course, this is coming from the person who will slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a butterfly.

*The first two paragraphs are a result of what happens when I try to compose a blog post at one in the morning. Melodramatic with pompous, unintelligible diction much?