Thursday, March 22, 2007

Orchids, time, evolution

This winter has been a particularly good winter for my household orchids. They have been generous in their blossoming.

We will be looking at more pictures of them in the near future; I am going to the orchid show (for the second time) at the New York botanical Garden next Sunday, where I hope to garner a good deal more spectacular photos of orchids in bloom.

Orchids are pretty cool flowers. There are any number of books extolling their virtues and passing on the more colorful tales that accompany their exotic appearance.

What interests me about orchids is they come in all shapes and sizes. They come to us as travelers out of time itself; orchids have been evolving for many millions of years, are found on every continent except Antarctica (and were probably found there when it was warmer,) and manifest a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes.

Like all flowers, they are sex organs. We do not really think about this very often; to us, flowers are just flowers. We do not open botanical publications and realize that they are a form of vegetative pornography. We do, however, recognize the extraordinary exuberance and beauty that is found in them -- an exuberance and beauty that could probably only come from sex itself, which is one of the most exuberant and beautiful activities in the biological world.

Biologists have often wondered why sex exists at all; after all, it is not strictly necessary for reproduction, not at all. My own personal opinion is that it exists because the universe itself enjoys it.

Aside from their blatant sexuality, what interests me about orchids is this trip through time that they have all taken. Somewhere back in the distant past, we might imagine there was a single orchid, or something thereabouts. Evolution, however, does not work that way. If we tried to examine the evolutionary history of flowers in order to put a pencil down on one particular spot where the orchid came into being, we would not find it. Evolution is a process of continuity where the delineation between species is never 100% clear in any given moment.

For millions of years, in various environments all over the globe, orchids have evolved in all their peculiarities. They have done so in intimate concert with other organisms; most, if not all, orchids have special relationships with insects that pollinate them and cannot reproduce without exactly the right kind of insects around.

This kind of precision is common in the natural world. Biological relationships fulfill each other in remarkable ways; all over the planet there are trillions of keys that fill trillions of locks in just exactly the right way. Molecules fit other molecules; appendages fit into orifices, mouthparts into flowers. Biological life is a clockwork machine of a complexity so immense it defies human understanding.

And it is a clockwork machine, a timepiece. Biological life has swum forward relentlessly through oceans of time to arrive at the present moment. We find ourselves within it, examining the results, taking them for granted. The incredible amount of time and effort that it took to bring us to where we are--the moment where we see an orchid, know that it is "orchid," and appreciate its essential beauty--that is beyond our understanding.

Not only that, the process is all but inevitable. In this universe, carbon is the only atom suitable for the assembly of molecules flexible enough to produce the chemical reactions that support life. Not only that, the strict constraints of said chemistry, along with simple mechanical physics ,all but guarantee that life will look about the same anywhere on finds it- even in the next galaxy, fish would loook like fish, trees like trees, birds like birds. Time has shown us over and over that the forms life exhibits are remarkably consistent, even when separated by hundreds of millions of years. Take icthyosaurs and porpoises, for example: one a reptile that lived a hundred million or more years ago, another a contemporary mammal: yet nearly identical in body form, because in this universe, that form is what works.

So if you were wondering whether all those weird creatures you see in science fiction movies are pretty much ridiculous, there you have your answer.

We take part in a magnificent process so much greater than ourselves. How much do we consider this, as we occupy ourselves with our acquisitions, and our politics, and our revenge? None of these things have anything to do with the journey that biology embarked upon some three or more billion years ago. Alone among all the creatures on the planet, we find ourselves obsessed things other than relationship; things other than nature.

Even the hard-core atheists of the biological world such as Edward O. Wilson assert that man's true purpose is to take in impressions of nature; this is what we evolved for, this is how we evolved. If we surround ourselves with impressions that are not natural (such as we do in all of our great cities) it actually causes us to fall victim to psychosis, because the impressions that are falling into our bodies are not the impressions we evolved to receive. In constructing our grand societies and adopting our immense technologies, we have accidentally engineered our own psychic downfall.

The more impressions of nature we take in, the better it is for us. The more deeply we feel a connection to nature through this organic rootedness I frequently refer to, the healthier we become. Everything about life for man was originally meant to be about an organic relationship to nature and to the planet.

Admittedly, it is too late to turn back the clock and completely fix this. It does, however, behoove us to cultivate a respect for this fact, and to seek a deeper understanding of just what nature is. A time machine which life travels within; an ocean of events that reaches back through history, washing its sediments into the rocks of the planet, processing its surface in a spectacular frenzy of molecular engineering.

A time machine which we have, on behalf of sacred and higher forces, become the principal witnesses to at this particular moment in the planet's evolution.

Spring has begun; the energy of the planet in this hemisphere is flowing anew. Here is a moment where the tides of life turn once again, where the energies we can receive increase, and the impressions we can take in blossom into new glories which we call leaves, and animals, and flowers.

I will miss the winter and its chill darknesses, but as the flow of my own inner sap quickens, I will accept and celebrate the arrival of warmth, and new life.

May the bees fly high, may the worms dig deep, may the fish swim far.

On a final note, the third visitor to this blog who reads this post will be the 1000th visitor since I began to keep track last year!

Welcome to you, whoever you are, and thanks for reading!

With love to all,

Lee

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