Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”




Research Animals: Buh-caaaaack–Thunk!

I heard odd stories about the use of animals in research at the University of Dayton when I was a biology undergrad. My wife got her Ph.D. in plant physiology there, and she told me a few more tales.

U.D. is a Catholic school run by Marianist priests and brothers. They taught standards of morality in religion classes as expected, but the clerics’ influence extended to animal physiology labs as well. One doctoral candidate dosed lab rats with hormones. He needed to collect their sperm to analyze the results. He consulted with the university board that dictated rules for animal research, and they told him that the rats, whether they professed allegiance to the pope or worshipped gods of their own, could not be “milked” for their semen. Rodent sexual gratification was not permitted. The only church approved method of extraction was the following: behead the rats with mini-guillotines, dissect their testes, suck out the vital fluids with syringes. Dozens of rats died to further scientific research, but the school stayed true to its interpretation of Catholic doctrine: win-win.

One poor slob continued the research after the doctoral candidate graduated. One evening he came to my wife’s lab upset because he’d lost a decapitated rat before he could extract its semen. Someone had tidied up during one of his breaks, and he came back to discover an empty dissection tray. Judy and Ted, a fellow researcher, told him that his missing carcass had probably been thrown into a dumpster outside the back of the building. Ted and Judy watched from a window and saw the man’s progress, his hesitation to open the dumpster, his desperate scrabbling search through the refuse. Judy asked Ted, “Should we go help him?” The man was Ted’s roommate, but Ted  said, “Nah.”  Some folks chose to work with critters instead of plants, and they got what they deserved.

A biology professor once confessed (probably in a moment of drunken candor) that he drove through the middle of town one day with the arm of a dead simian dangling out the back of his car trunk. The deceased baboon was too large to fit comfortably inside, so the prof had to fold the body and strap the hood down. The arm refused to stay put. The drunken professor marveled that no one even honked a horn as a hairy hand bobbed up and down beckoning to motorists following behind.

He had picked up the dead baboon from Wright Patterson Air Force Base and planned to collect its bones. It had been strapped, while still alive, into a prototype ejection seat designed for fighter jets. Its sudden death came by an abrupt, crunching drop.  The broken body provided data to Air Force engineers about worst case scenarios for pilots making quick exits from their aircraft.

The alcoholic prof had another incident involving a dead baboon. He collected another carcass and dumped it into a vat filled with acid, and put the vat on a burner set low. The plan was to stew the baboon overnight to eat flesh away from bone. The vat boiled over in the wee morning hours while the professor slept blissfully unaware, and a noxious sludge drained through the lab floor, seeped into the ceiling tiles of the room below, ate through them and dripped down. The department secretary came in the next morning and found the department files and her desk coated with toxic, liquefied remains.

The engineering school’s Research Institute received funds from the Pentagon to test aircraft windshields. The military had lost planes and pilots in airborne collisions with large birds. I heard from undergrad engineering students that the experiments involved firing chickens from a cannon at windshields mounted against a wall in the basement of the Institute. I later found out that the chickens were frozen birds bought at a local Krogers, but at the time I assumed that they were alive. When a buddy and I walked by the building we sometimes heard a strange rumbling sound. We imagined hens and roosters rocketing to their dooms.  Ed and I memorialized their final moments by intoning, “Buh-caaaaaaaack—Thunk!”

Dinosaurs and Heaven: Science vs. Religion

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When I moved to Orlando I saw decals on cars that carried on a debate between science and religion.  One was a fish, a symbol of Christianity, and letters inside its outlines spelled out “truth”.  Another decal showed the outlines of the same fish, but little feet replaced the fins.  The letters inside spelled “Darwin”.  A third decal came in the form of a “truth” fish eating a “Darwin” fish.  I’m not sure if anyone’s thought up a fourth.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of mothers protesting against public schools teaching boys about dinosaurs.  They believe that a boy’s aggressive tendencies can be awakened by seeing pictures of T-Rexes, that these images “bestialize” their sons.  Some mothers insist that dinosaurs never existed as the Bible does not mention them.  The thunder lizards are a hoax perpetuated by paleontologists to get grant money from the government.

Other groups believe that dinosaurs did exist, but not before Adam.  They ignore evidence provided by carbon dating.   They claim instead that God snapped His fingers, and the earth suddenly teemed with all the creatures that would ever walk, swim, ooze and fly.  (Whoop, there it was!)

The graphics that illustrate this proposition lack imagination.  They usually show kids playing with baby brontosauruses while a volcano puffs benevolently in the distance.  But if you thought about the rampant conditions shortly after this Creation moment, you’d have to conclude that our planet was truly exciting for the species that currently survive.  Elephants would have had to outrun T-Rexes.  Lions and wolves would have  fought velociraptors over kills.  Owls and eagles flew along side pterosaurs, and sharks competed with fifty foot mosasaurs for the rights to seal hunting waters.  (If I were Adam I wouldn’t have lazed about naming this and that creature and pining for a soul mate.  Instead I would have found a dark corner in a cave and hid myself away while the rest of creation sorted things out.)

I once worked with a woman named Mrs. Putterbaugh.  She was deeply religious and did not approve of a coworker, my roommate Dave.  He was a master’s degree student in biology.  Dave believed that science would eventually solve all the mysteries of the universe and that any form of religion was an obsolete superstition.  She complained about his impatient dismissal of her beliefs and said, “The really smart ones have a hard time getting into heaven.”

She smiled at me as she said that, and I knew that she included me in the heaven bound elect.  She assumed two things:  1) I was not as smart as Dave; 2) my faith in scripture outweighed my belief in science.  My roommate was smarter, but my attitude toward religion at that time was almost identical to his.  If he and I had been plastered flat on I75 by a jack-knifing semi, we both would have been consigned to the flames.

I didn’t tell Mrs. Putterbaugh that it’s foolish to cling to myths disproved by science.  And I didn’t explain to her that the earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, that creatures gradually evolved over millions of years, and that T-Rexes never lay down with lambs.  She would have closed her ears and begun leaving Bible tracts at my work station.

Now I might fare better in a discussion with her.  I believe in the ability of science to describe and predict reality, but also believe that the practice has its limits.  We are puny creatures with limited means of exploring the vast reaches of creation.  It’s arrogant to assume that we will know and understand All if given a enough time to smash subatomic particles and balance equations.

Only God knows why He (She, It, The Cosmic Transcendence) bothered to let the universe be in the first place.  Science is good at figuring out what and how, but usually avoids why.  There are no equations that answer this question:  what’s the point of existence?

The Roman Catholic church has overcome it’s past of suppressing science, and generally embraces the idea that religion and science can coexist in harmony.  My fifth grade teacher, a nun named Sister Joseph Marie, commented, “The Catholic Church has no problems with Darwin and the theory of evolution.”  A classmate asked, “But what about Genesis?  Doesn’t it say that everything was created in six days?”  Sister replied, “What is a day to God?”


Ghosts in Mind: Uncanny Moments

Have you ever been caught in a rogue emotional wave that came out of nowhere?  At times I feel inexplicably exhilarated, or just happy and content.  At others I feel painfully sad or depressed and dull.  Nothing in particular happened to make me either euphoric or despondent.  A feeling came over me out of the blue.  There was no obvious cause.

I remember one of the first times this happened.  I was in the back seat of my Dad’s blue Plymouth on a hot summer day.  We were waiting in line at a drive-thru beer warehouse.  I stared out the window at stacks of beer cases on metal shelves and was overcome by an intense feeling of guilt.  I searched my memory but could not come up with any evil deed that I had recently perpetrated.  As far as I knew I was innocent of any sin of commission or omission.  And I was about ten.  What could I have done that was so horrible?

On the flip side I remember another moment when I was a bit older.  I was walking from the car to the front door of our house and happened to look down at a patch of grass.  As I studied crab grass, a dandelion, and dirt I was suddenly filled with intense joy.  I had no idea why.  The lawn was not an object of my personal passion, but the sight of that spot of turf moved me in a way I could not understand.

This morning I was busy with household chores, tidying up for an upcoming visit with some guests.  I became anxious.  I felt overloaded by many and sundry worries about my family and began to get annoyed as I dusted and swept.  At midday I felt excited and happy when I described plans and showed sketches to my wife for two paintings I intended to start very soon.  In the early  afternoon I lapsed into an aching depression.  The first two emotional states had identifiable causes, but the third had no explainable source.  The mental pain was gnawing and felt significant, but I had no idea why it was tormenting me.  Nothing new had happened since the morning to deliver me into such a mood.

I sometimes wonder if our emotional states are ghosts of past events come back to haunt us.  There may be subliminal triggers that summon them, but for the most part their arrival seems arbitrary to me.  It feels like a free floating energy loop descends and takes over without introduction or explanation, not unlike an uninvited guest who knocks on the door and demands entry.  But most of these visitors seem familiar to me.  Even when I feel the most distressed I also feel the odd comfort of experiencing an accustomed state of mind.  Perhaps my brain substitutes old tapes, plays old records when it has nothing better to do.  I might just be experiencing reruns from a mental TV station that’s run out of new shows to play.  There’s nothing uncanny about that.

But what about those moments of instant recognition when we see the face of a stranger and feel an immediate sense of connection?  Are we seeing a resemblance of a person forgotten but formerly loved?  Yogananda, a guru who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, taught that these moments are reunions with friends from past lives.  Sudden feelings of danger, disgust or revulsion when meeting someone new indicates an encounter with a former enemy.

Places too may come back to haunt.  I had an odd experience a few years ago in Mead Garden while sitting on a bench by a pond.  It was early afternoon on a sunny day.   A copse of tangled trees and vines was off to my right, and as I stared at it I had a dreamlike memory of a scene from another place and time.  I got the distinct impression that I had once visited a southern plantation and had driven up in a carriage to the big house at dusk.  It was a Georgian building with white columns, and it glowed in the darkening gloom.  Along the drive were trees and bushes planted in orderly rows, and their leaves were a dark, emerald green in the failing light.

There was nothing all that memorable about that stand of trees at Mead Garden, but that particular configuration of trunks and branches, leaves and vines triggered a phantom memory.  The sense of deja vu, of the feeling that I had visited such a place was vivid and convincing.

My training in science does nothing to fully explain these sudden mental shifts, these sideways drifts through memory and time.  I believe instead that while science can well explain physical phenomena, the practice lacks the tools to deal with the uncanny.  The glancing views we get of the hereafter, of past lives, of a sudden knowledge that exceeds the bounds of our normal experience, refuse to be dismissed.  They persist despite our best efforts to explain them away.

The danger lies, of course, in denying one for the other.  Reason and science have their limits, but no one wants to return to the days of superstitious fear and ignorance.  On the other hand, a culture based solely on hard headed, pragmatic, materialistic rationalism allows no room for intuition, dreams, imagination and glimpses of other worlds beyond the limits of our everyday existence.  That way of living is sterile and lacks a healthy sense of wonder.  The best practice, I believe, is to render unto reason that which belongs to reason, and to render unto wonder that which belongs to wonder.  While I need to respect the laws of physics and chemistry if I wish to remain alive on this planet, I’m still free to greet an uncanny visitor with an open mind.  The ghosts are going to come, unexpected and sometimes chilling, but determined to make their presence acknowledged.  Pretending that they’re not there won’t make them go away.