Friday, March 12, 2010

"There is grandeur in this view of life...."

Today's title is borrowed from the closing paragraph of Darwin's magnum opus. I sensed that grandeur yesterday while taking the pictures shown here. Still not "in control" of this software, I am going to try an experiment. In the following text, I'll discuss the photos, one by one, from top to bottom, hoping that when I click "publish post" they'll remain in the same order. Wish me luck.
I call the first one "Beatrix Potter's Habitat" because it's the kind of micro-habitat that I can imagine inspired her to study lichens. She was a rising great mycologist/lichenologist when science was dominated by male chauvinists. Denied access to the Royal Academy and other such venues for announcing one's work, she converted to a less threatening career writing childrens' stories. Her drawings of lichens remain some of the best ever rendered, and she was one of the first to suspect that lichens were a symbiotic arrangement of two different organisms, a fungus and an alga. The next photo I call "Vernal Pond," this one being near Stampfli Lane in Indian Valley. In the spring these ponds are an invertebrate biologist's delight. I plan to take some water samples soon and try some micro-photography of such things as ciliates, rotifers, and fairy shrimp, and their great hiding places, the filamentous algae. Photos three and four are willow buds and willow flowers respectively. There are number of different willows in this area alongside the streams. Some have bright red branches and others have orange or yellow branches. When the several species occur together, before leafing out, the display of color is quite amazing. The next photo I titled "Where's My Polarizer?" I guess that title wouldn't fly in a gallery. But it reveals why I took the photo in the first place. If you look closely at the plants living beneath the glare of the water's surface, you will see they are covered with oxygen bubbles. If you touch a plant with a stick, it releases many of them and they quickly float to the surface. Plants, of course, are producing this oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. Many air-breathing insects and spiders are able to capture these bubbles and keep them attached as their own SCUBA tanks so they don't have to risk exposure by coming to the surface every time they need air. This is a wonderful activity to watch, especially with polarizing sunglasses. The next photo with a variety of mosses, fungi, and lichens attached to a rock wall, is called "Where Soil Begins." The title should be self-explanatory. Then we have "Strider with Algae." The water strider is an insect that every kid tries to catch, usually in vain. The filamentous algae beneath the surface, such as Spirogyra, are quite beautiful and home to many small invertebrates. People seeking out pristine swimming holes may call this stuff "slime" or other nasty names, but when viewed under a microscope it is amazingly beautiful. Each filament is a linear arrangement of cylindrical cells, each containing one or more huge, spiral-shaped chloroplasts, hence the generic name. A sample viewed under the microscope usually always reveals a wide variety of microorganisms swimming around, eating and being eaten, mating, and what-not. Way better than most movies! Next, a small puddle filled with a wide variety of organisms besides algae, which I call "Origin of Life Scenario," because it presents an image of a place where I can imagine non-living materials giving rise to the simplest of living cells - given a couple billion years and favorable weather. Next, a departure from the usual bird photo - from the backside. I don't have a fancy title besides "Heron - Backside" A semicircle formed by the wings on the down-stroke, hard to see when in action, but intriguing when captured in a photo. Next, a little Douglas-fir. One of the smallest I've ever seen producing lots of cones. Next, the same magpie I posted yesterday, but this time in a photo I call "Falling without Bungee." Next, "Layers" of sedimentary rock which give this area much of its charm. Next, a handsome little fungus emerging from a bed of moss. No title...yet. Next, the embryonic leaves of a flowering plant emerging from the same bed of moss. I call this one "Faith in a Seed," after one of Thoreau's last published works. Last, I wish I were a geologist or had a geologist friend along to explain the intricate crystalline pattern attached to the rock which I think is either sedimentary or metamorphic. I found a detached piece of this material and have it at home on a window sill. Will eventually find out what it is.
While exploring this wonderland, I reflected often on Richard Louv's book, "Last Child in the Woods," which I've commented on favorably before. I especially like his coinage, 'nature deficit disorder,' and I like his general thesis that kids are becoming less and less familiar with their natural environment, which could spell doom for protectionist sentiment, but are also losing out on the many developmental benefits of such experience. Now, a disclaimer: I just discovered a bookmark I had placed at around the 85% mark, and realized I hadn't read the entire book. So, I proceeded to do just that a couple of nights ago. Now, I must vent. Chapter 21 is titled "The Spiritual Necessity of Nature for the Young." The word spiritual is bandied about in so many different contexts these days, that it is useless unless conversants make sure they have the same or similar definitions. The sentence that revealed Louv's orientation [Whether it reflects his own beliefs, or is simply an opportunistic play to the fundamentalist audience, I cannot say.] reads, "We cannot care for God if we do not care for his creation." In the remainder of this chapter, I found the assortment of examples of trying to marry religious faith with environmentalism to be nauseating. Not only does he abandon all pretense of a scientific basis for understanding nature, he is also playing to a crowd that is the enemy of good science education. That usually includes attacking evolution and denying human-caused global warming. So, back to the title I chose for this piece - if you can't understand the "grandeur" that Darwin was talking about, you cannot call yourself educated. I hesitate to call the feelings this environment engendered in me spiritual for reasons that should be obvious by now. However, for a much more rational and important description, I'd highly recommend E. O. Wilson's "Biophilia."

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