The natural splendor of the common world

Michael - Pasadena, California
Entered on April 22, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: nature

I believe in the undiscovered splendor of the common world.

Many think that the age of earthly exploration is long behind us; that the most wondrous plants and animals were plucked, probed, and pickled long ago; that the natural world, already cataloged and classified, is only dwindling under the relentless pressure of our own inexhaustible needs.

While it is true that nature is under siege and few of us will ever witness the discovery of a new species in an exotic land, the familiar world around us is replete with extraordinary life forms doing extraordinary things. The last time you chased a fly across a room, did you stop to consider how such a tiny creature actually works? How does its miniscule brain control its tiny muscles and membranous wings to so effortlessly evade our swat? Science has made some progress on such questions, but our knowledge is coarse compared to the complex elegance of even the most common creatures around us. If our understanding of nature were complete, engineers would be able to match the performance of such animals, but can you think of a mechanical contraption that can fly as well as a pigeon, tunnel as efficiently as a worm, or crawl as effortlessly as a slug?

Imagine the world reaction were a sparkling silver disk from a distant planet to land in Central Park. Picture the frenzy as both cameras and cannons aimed at the opening hatch to see what kind of creature might walk, crawl, or ooze down the slowly extending gangway. Even the most rancorous ethnic conflict would dissolve for that moment, terrorist and patriot alike would pause to gaze into the eyes – if indeed they have them – of our intergalactic peers. No matter what transpired in the next few moments of that first meeting, few would question that they had lived to witness a transforming moment in our species’ history.

But it is only our ignorance and self-obsession that keep us from experiencing such transcending moments every day. Equipped with nothing more than humility and a hand lens, we can escape the familiar and explore the exotic world of our own homes. There are cicadas beneath our shrubs, tunneling for food in a dark subterranean world, waiting seventeen years for their one brief chance to sing, mouthless, in the sun. There are columns of ants harvesting crumbs from our kitchen floors, signaling one another in a mysterious language of smell. There are spiders at work in our basements, meticulously crafting webs from diaphanous silks that are tougher than steel. All the creatures around us provide an opportunity to explore unknown wonders of the world and view our place in it from a distinctly different perspective. If you have ever been tempted to travel to an African Savana or an Amazon Rain forest, I suggest that you first walk outside and peek under a good damp rock.