Saturday, July 8, 2017

"Nature - Its Miracles and Mysteries"

Sydney M. Williams

Essay from Essex
“Nature – Its Miracles and Mysteries”
July 8, 2017

All the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.”
                                                                                                Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
                                                                                                Proto-Leaf (Leaves of Grass), 1860-61

Being neither a doctor nor a scientist, I have the advantage of not dwelling on the mechanics of life; instead, I am awed by its mysteries and the miracles that produced what I behold.

Among the most cherished miracles and mysteries of fatherhood is the introduction to one’s new-born child – the marveling of its perfect toes (with beautifully formed nails) to the wisps of hair that sprout from its head. How did it come to be? How did it grow in the womb of my wife from an egg into this child I hold? How did it know when to leave the sanctity of that dark and comfortable place and enter the world, to be held at the breast of its mother? It is both a mystery and a miracle.

The Scottish philosopher and empiricist David Hume once defined a miracle as a “violation of the laws of nature.” But 1,300 years earlier St. Augustine wrote “miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” I think St. Augustine got it right – experience and knowledge alone are not requirements for belief. I think of a miracle as our interpretation of an observation we do not understand – an explanation for an event that cannot be explained rationally – a mystery enshrouded in faith.

Walking the paths through the fields and woods that surround our home at Essex Meadows, I marvel at the interdependence of nature – of the fact that all forms of life – animals, birds and fish – survive by consuming something that lives, or has lived and died. One ponders how life came to be. There is a chicken and egg aspect that is beyond comprehension (or, at least, beyond mine) – as to which came first? Scientists have theories, but I am tempted to prefer the wonder of the unknown, to the drudgery of the lab and the denseness of dusty texts. These are questions as well to put to philosophers, poets and artists, as to doctors, scientists and technicians. In breaking the analysis down into rigid, mechanized component parts, do we not lose something of its mystery?  Will discovery destroy imagination?

We talk of perfection in nature. We think of the “best-in-show” at the Westminster Kennel Club, a Triple Crown winner, the most perfect rooster, goat, sheep, cow at country fairs, or largest pumpkin or biggest tomato. But perfection, like Stuart Little’s search for his beautiful bird Margalo, is a quest for castles in the air[1]. All nature, we should never forget, is a work in progress. It is continuous. It is never finished. We, and all life around us, have evolved and will continue to do so.

All species adapt to changing environments, or they die. The evolutionary process for those whose lives are long, like man, is slow. A hundred years might produce three generations, hardly enough time to adapt if climate change comes quickly. On the other hand, the Mayfly, which has a life span of 24 hours, would produce, in that same 100 years, about 50,000 generations, making them better able and more likely to adjust to evolving conditions[2].

Could we, I sometimes wonder as I meander under trees and across fields, with my field glasses and camera and in my shorts, sneakers and baseball hat, survive in the wild? When we get hungry, we go to the supermarket. Fish, birds and animals must forage, or hunt and kill. When we are cold, we pull on a sweater. Birds that have stayed behind ruffle their feathers. Frogs bury themselves in the silt of streams and ponds beneath the ice. Many animals hibernate through cold, winter nights. When we want to go somewhere, we get in our cars, trains or buses. Our fellow creatures must fly, swim, walk or slither. They, of necessity, are self-reliant. We change our clothes daily, something a cat – a stickler for cleanliness – must think frivolous. Most animals die wrapped in what they were born.

Nature is violent, but not in the way civilized man is. There are emotions we share: hunger, fear, surprise and, I suspect, loyalty and trust. Other emotions, such as lust, greed, hate, anger and disgust – emotions responsible for senseless violence – are peculiar to man, not to the rabbits, turtles and birds I see on my daily walks. I doubt there are any Hitler’s or Stalin’s among the squirrels I watch leaping from branch to branch. Leopards and Baboons are famous as mortal enemies, but I suspect it is not hatred that drives their need to battle, but fear and surprise. Neither employs experts, as do we, in places like the Pentagon or Znamenka 19 in Moscow, to map campaigns and plot the annihilation of enemies.

Most violence in nature is reserved for killing for food. Whether vegetarian or carnivorous, all creatures survive by eating something that is alive, or was. We may think it cruel on the unsuspecting frog to become breakfast for a black snake, but would we rather the snake starved? After all, the frog may have dined on a daddy longleg the night before, the mother of whom was surely upset. And the snake, besides devouring moles we detest, provides fare for owls and hawks. This symbiosis in nature is one of its mysteries. How did it come to be? Why does it work so well? Its complexity challenges today’s most brilliant scientists. It is a system today’s most sophisticated computer programmers could not reconstruct.  This interdependency of species is one of life’s miracles; its origin, a mystery.

Perhaps this is what is meant by taking time to “smell the roses,” to appreciate nature around us. It’s not necessary to understand every technical nuance, to be able to provide the Latin name for every plant or animal, to deconstruct the scientific explanation as to why trees come alive in spring, or to question why beavers smack their tails when danger approaches. But it is important to be an observer, to appreciate nature in action – be it a honey bee gathering nectar, a chipmunk having lunch, a clutch of turtle eggs, or turkeys gathering their chicks as they scramble for cover. To see nature is to witness miracles. Best of all, it is a show without alpha or omega, and it is free. As Thomas Wolfe wrote, “Nature is the one place where miracles not only happen, but they happen all the time.”

[1] A favorite line from E.B. White: When asked to describe Margalo, Stuart replied, “She comes from fields once tall with wheat; from pastures deep in fern and thistle; she comes from vales of meadowsweet, and she loves to whistle.”
[2] Using the same formula, and assuming some semblance of mathematical accuracy, to achieve the same number of generations would take man more than 1,000,000 years – back to a time when our ancestors resided in Africa, when we bore marked differences to how we have evolved.

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