What do you think of the bugs, worms, and the other creepy-crawlies that run for their lives when you pick up a damp piece of wood? Many will say ugh, not for me! but for some of us – entomologists surely, biologists and science writers probably – there are marvelous things to know about ants, spiders, centipedes, beetles, earwigs, millipedes, earthworms and their like. All have their places in the web of life, yet most of us are trained out of our appreciation for these small creatures, actually our small fellow creatures, before we reach our teens. Some of us never lose it.
Probably my Auntie Elsie had something to do with my continued interest in small, un-furry creatures. When I was 10 years old she sent me an anthology called Nature in Britain. I loved it, it still graces my bookshelves, and I suspect it contributed to the interest in science writing that developed later. A decade later when I was at university, another influence came in from left field to support my fascination with what I will called “natural history.” It emerged from an interest in Oriental philosophy that had emerged from a couple of classes I had taken, and not insignificantly from conversations with friends in a university coffee shop. I enjoyed my observations of natural life, which were too disorganized to be a true hobby, was delighted when my second cousin Tom Hey, who wrote a weekly column under the modest byline “A Naturalist” n The Times of London, reprinted a couple of my nature articles.
The following two paragraphs from my new book Wonderment will give you an idea of how I satisfied my penchant for admiring “lower,” differently specialized forms of life.
“[My] early and, I must admit, superficial exposure to philosophy left a lasting impression. Perhaps my quasi-Buddhist friends had influenced me somehow, for after my college years I had a greater respect for all forms of life. A greater feeling of partnership with the non-human world took form as I learned about the close and generally helpful relationship that we share with all other living things. I was aware of the unavoidable tiny deaths I caused by the simple act of washing, and began to avoid stepping on (most) insects. When two large centipedes showed up in the house, I carefully removed them to my woodpile. I was both saddened and alarmed when the local population of wasps and bees crashed in the early years of the century. I was fascinated by the aerial skill of hoverflies, the beauty of fallen leaves that had transformed into delicate skeletal designs, seeing brilliant autumn leaves against a backdrop of smoky clouds, and the silent work of humble earthworms, turning and processing the soil to enrich it for next year’s garden.
“Caring for life extended to plants, too. Some might think of plants as being mere solar-powered extrusions of water and organic material, but not me. When I was in a particularly good mood, and especially if no one was looking, I might step to the plants on the windowsill and breathe on them – not a sharp purse-lipped plosive puff but an appreciative close-up sigh from the bottom of my lungs, haaa-a-a. I knew it was silly, and you are allowed a polite reader’s chuckle. But I gave in to the silliness and imagined the geraniums invigorated by that gentle gift of carbon dioxide. I reflected that very likely the geraniums reciprocated with an unthinking, microscopic quid-pro-quo gift of oxygen. Call it madness, but I could afford the whim, I enjoyed the eccentric moment, and it harmed no one.”
And it had nothing at all to do with Buddhism.
With this introduction to small-scale ecology you will understand why I am pleased with the current interest in the human biome, that kilogram of mobile, interactive microorganisms that live on and within each of us, unnoticed until we flood our systems with antibiotics that wreak havoc with benign microbial populations and wipe out their ability to manage, as a prime example, our digestive systems. When Science magazine ran a special issue on “The Gut Microbiota,” on June 8, 2012, I was delighted. Long overdue, I told the wife, who believes in “probiotic” food preparations that include a few gut microorganisms like lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria but, I suspect, is doubtful about claims that active, dirty kids become healthy kids as the result of accidental inoculation. (Minor infections can stimulate the development of antibodies that will help the body to fight off serious infections at a later time.)
We’ve come a long way in this particular post, from centipedes to geraniums to bifid bacteria. The preservation of the natural world is one of my passions, for esthetic as well as practical, economic reasons, and I manage to make this known in my book without becoming preachy. That said, in another part of Wonderment I express my concern that our kind may be breaking free from the benevolent ecological bond, “irreversibly bound to destroy the planet upon which we depend.”
I profoundly hope that I am wrong.