the entanglement of sense

“And, dear cuz, I like thinking about the two of us marveling at the same moon…” This message showed up last Friday afternoon. It was in response to a Facebook post I put up about a full moon run a friend and I did the night before. We had run up Green Mountain, just west of downtown Boulder, on trails covered in a foot of snow and illuminated only by our headlamps. We arrived at the summit just in time to see the moon peeking above the horizon and welcoming nocturnal frivolity mixed with a little self imposed discomfort. Meg’s message (Meg is my cousin who lives outside New York City) ┬ácatalyzed a powerful sense of tranquility and connection.

Many ecologists, admitted or not, dream of a unified set of theories that will link ecological patterns. It is an illusive goal. With so many different organisms (close to 2 million different species) and ever changing environmental factors (climate change, snow depth, wind velocity, etc.) it may be some time before this achievement is realized. Unlike physics and chemistry, events in ecology are seldom predictable. It is why we ecologists quip that what we do “is not rocket science, it is much, much harder”. This challenge is what draws many of us to embrace the field.

Some of us will spend the better part of a lifetime trying to figure out why a single organism responds the way it does to certain environmental cues (day time frivolity mixed with a little self imposed discomfort). We study and record details that to outsiders seem a waste of time, money, and brain cells. But that is not the way we see it. There is a pattern there, we are sure, and elucidating that pattern will make us famous. Zeus and all his companions shan’t stand in our way. Besides, we argue, the predictive value of such knowledge could certainly make for a better world.

This route of discovery involves the constant effort of recording small details, anticipation of challenges, the generation of questions and more questions, and the re-evaluation of all the answers we get (even if they are exactly what we hoped for). This is no different than most people’s lives or jobs. But the efforts of becoming and defining, setting apart and individualizing can pull at the cohesion that rests in sharing and disseminating knowledge and experience. All too often our efforts at being an expert cloud our innate abilities to be together.

Then there are times, like on full moon nights, when it is possible for even the most twisted of ecologists (read as scientists, lawyers, business magnates, doctors… you get the idea) to step back from the maddening detail, from the challenges of justifying our existence, and embrace the things we all get to see. Observation is a gift we possess no matter where in the world you live or what your status. When we see, feel, smell, taste, touch, we are diving into a long line of experience that has nothing to do with piecing anything together other than what we are doing at a particular moment in time.
The value of such experience emerges from the inclusivity. From the collective opportunity to embrace what is. From stopping for a moment and appreciating that your cousin, colleague, long lost friend, or future lover, is seeing the same natural phenomena you are.


Successicus manipulata (sub-species emphemerata)

“Don’t think humans are the most successful animals”. The warning came during a biology lecture for undergraduates. The slide that accompanied this statement included a number of pictures representing different animal phyla; sponges (Calcarea and Silicea), squids (Mollusca), earthworms (Annelida), and starfish (Echinodermata). Center top was a picture of a beetle (Arthropoda). Humans were notably absent. The use of the word “success” hit me with the strength of Urus maritimus (polar bear, Phylum Chordata).

I know a number of successful people; few of them receive kudos commensurate to that designation. These are people who have pursued their passion and done so with no or minimal disruption to the world around them. The people I refer to are those that manage to have smiles on their faces as a result of adapting to their surroundings, those that thrive on fitting into the whole experience. They exude confidence in creating community while at the same time embracing the vulnerability of not succeeding. They employ a creative adaptation, and in so doing they include and nurture, abstractly and seamlessly giving back to those around them. And sometimes they fail. But without a doubt, they celebrate the diversity in their lives and do not feel the need to homogenize their surroundings in order to feel alive.

There is a single species of human (Homo sapiens, Phylum Chordata). One. There are approximately 12,800 named species of ants, close to 400,000 named species of beetles, and roughly 1500 different species of flies, and that is just a start. One species of human and we populate every corner of the planet, not through adapting to the environment, but by creating an artificial one. We as a species, manage to overlook all these ecosystems in favor of something that suits us.

Other organisms are forced to adapt. They must efficiently use available resources and adapt to their surrounding environment, or die. Pretty simple really. They are vulnerable to the influences of selective pressures. Many will not make it, in fact most won’t. Yet, in terms of shear numbers, it is a strategy that has worked far more successfully than any yet devised by humans. And it is one of the things that gives the world its personality, why there are differences, why we can say the community of organisms that live in the tropics is different than those that live in the deserts, why the group of species living on the tops of mountains are different than those living on ocean floors.

I like humans, really, and I fully appreciate that we live in the 21st Century. But my goal with this blog is to get people to lift their eyes, to see what they usually don’t. So sometimes as I stand outside looking in, it is hard to not hear the echo of Groucho Marx’s words when I look at the narrowness of my species’ success. “I don’t want to belong to a club that would accept people like me as a member.” (If I had my choice, I would be a sea otter (Enhydra lutris, Phylum Chordata). That’s another post though.)
So, here is the question; How did you adapt today? Not through manipulation but rather through interaction and absence of pride. And tomorrow, pretend you are an insect; the world can live without humans but would wither and decay without insects.

the diversity of small things

Something extra ordinary happened today. My bank, via their ATM, wished me happy birthday. Now, today is not my birthday, but my sentimental mind said “thank you” and my parasympathetic nervous system forced a broad smile. My skeptical scientist mind started analyzing the components of the algorithm that sends such messages. My guess is that I will see one of these messages each time I remove $60 from my checking account for the entire month of February. (I will test it again tomorrow.) But the encounter got me thinking about small efforts and the power of their additive impacts.

In the past week I have had one welcoming and memorable handshake from a perfect stranger, one truly interested inquiry about an article I was reading while sitting at a bar, one “Hi Jeff” from someone who meets far too many people to casually remember my name, and one hug that lasted an eternity and was not weird. Added to this are countless pats on the back, good to see you’s, how’s your day, and random texts from friends just checking in.

The lab I taught this week was on the diversity of protists. Protists are a sub-group of the domain Eukarya; organisms that have membrane bound organelles such as mitochondria and a nucleus. Protists are really small, some less that 1 micro-meter (that’s 1/1,000,000 of a meter or .001 mm). In other words, most cannot be seen without the aid of a compound microscope. They are ubiquitous in all environments. Many consume and recycle organic matter and even serve as food for a variety of organisms. Others, like Giardia and malaria, cause disease. Whatever their function they have a huge impact on life on earth.

I study ants. They often require a microscope to identify, but they can be seen with the naked eye. I like to be able to see their activity in their native environment without disturbing them too much. But, during lab, as I looked through the microscope and saw beautifully symmetrical diatoms, deadly malaria and constantly changing amoebas, I fell in love with the amazing diversity of shapes and sizes. My students were infected with this diversity too. As I made my way around the room, answering questions and encouraging further inquiry, watching the level of excitement and interest rise, I was absorbed by the understanding of how all those small things we fail to stop and appreciate can affect our lives.

When we accept that the small, in all its diversity and additive impact, be they protists or the simplest of human interaction, are all around us, we start to link to the circle of life. Perhaps, too, we will pay more attention to how we influence and impact others.