Monday, February 15, 2010

The Knack to Vivify

There's a swale ditch that runs through the pasture, and in times of heavy precipitation such as these, it fills with flowing runoff water and there's a veritable creek that cuts the field in half and trickles down through the muddy woods before joining up with other small tributaries and meeting the Pomme de Terre River. It's frozen now with a sludgy kind of snowy ice so that when you try to walk across it bends and moans and stretches down before giving way and setting your feet down gently on the muddy bottom. Stuck out there today, in the oppressively bitter cold with a few casual snow flurries carried on the whipping wind, once again shackled to a grazing horse, bundled up in Carhartt coveralls, earmuffs, and scarf, I entertained myself by trying to balance myself on the ice without breaking it. Good practice, I thought, in case I ever found myself stranded in the middle of a patch of slushy thin ice and had to safely maneuver to solid land. My efforts, unfortunately, were unsuccessful, as time and time again my thankfully waterproof boots splashed through and stirred up murky eddies. Having failed at this objective, I next diverted myself by picking up glassy shards and observed their clarity and ripples. In breaking the ice and peeling it back, I suddenly thought about the microcosm in the cold water below. Was I disturbing it in my thoughtless destruction? Would the cold kill the organisms that lived inside?

And so, in the mud of the woods in the pasture, while my horse nudged the frozen grass halfheartedly and gave me a look like I was crazy, I bent down on my knees and peered into the icy water.

Instant gratification.

For what did I see almost immediately, crawling and sliding among strands of filamentous algae, but a tiny turbellarian flatworm? Yes, less than a centimeter long and a millimeter wide, the tiny paper-thin form reared its head and searched along the bottom of the muddy still water. I leaned and stared and observed its life.

We studied these things in a Zoology course I took last year. They truly are fascinating creatures, if you're into that invertebrate sort of thing. Like many of the so-called "lower" animals, they possess remarkable capabilities of regeneration. We performed an experiment on them once—"surgery," the professor called it, but "butchery" would have been more appropriate. My partner and I cut off our worm's head with a fine razor blade, then split the body halfway down. The head should have grown a new stunted body, while the bisected remains should have sprouted two new heads. Alas, some contaminant killed our unfortunate fellow(s) within a week, just as they were starting to heal and regrow. Another one makes the ultimate sacrifice in the quest for scientific knowledge.

If I was a planarian, what would my world view be? I try to recall knowledge from the class. Turbellarians cannot "see" in our sense of the word, but they can detect light through ocelli which look like nothing but the eyes of a comical cartoon character. What else? They can feel touch, and they don't much like it. They feed through a "mouth" on their ventral surface which rather resembles a penis, yet they are hermaphroditic.

And what if someone lopped off my head and cleaved my neck? Would I split in three? What would my new heads say? Would they share my memory? Would they act and talk and think like the original "me?" Would I curse the person who cut me, or thank them for allowing me to grow to this new wonderful form?

So I sat and stared and pondered until the horse urged me on up the creek to another spot, where she contentedly stopped to graze. I peeled back the ice here, too, and got right to work just looking. And oh God, what have I been missing all these years when I didn't know to see?

There's a story about the Native Americans; whether it's true I don't know. As the tale goes, the Indians, when the first European ships sailed to the New World bearing White Man, could not see them. For days they gazed right through the slowly growing blots on the horizon. Without comprehension, without a point of reference for comparison, the ships simply did not exist. Only when a shaman stared down the clouds did he realize the truth, which he then shared with the people, and their eyes were opened.

Yes. And here, down in the murk, my newly-sighted eyes spied one, two, no, seven, eight planarians creeping and feeding in a five square inch plot of mud. But they've been there all along! And around them little tiny aquatic plants released little tiny bubbles to the surface—oxygen!—the product of their photosynthesis, light- and carbon-fixing. And that's been happening all this time!

I'm reduced to a simpleton, a child, finding fascination in the most mundane things. But they aren't mundane. They are remarkably complex, intricate, complicated, important, and even in the midst of this bitter winter—the worst I've ever known—they continue on.

There's hope there. As the flatworm regenerates its severed head, so too will the trees put forth new buds and leaves, and the ground will thaw, and the air will warm.

Spring is around the bend, bringing whispered promises and hope.


secret agent woman said...

Very cool. I have never lost that interest in the natural world either. And yay! for Spring being on the way.

Mozart said...

I hope the snow is over. I think it might be.