Monday, April 20, 2020

The Search for Sense

The Search for Sense

            It's easy to keep talking when you have nothing to say. I've done it often. After all, if I shut up people might forget about me.

            This 49th essay is the last planned in the series. The others, ostensibly, have been about gardening, though actually about my view of things. More traditionally, there would be one more, making 50. People like things that end in zeros. But, I'm finished here, resting comfortably at 49. If you enjoy my strange humor, go back and read earlier essays. This one doesn't continue that thread.

            Instead, I'll answer the question: why do I pursue the subjects I do? I know you never asked that, but memoirs are more for the memoirist than their readers. More encompassing than thoughts on my favorite color, or why photography is best appreciated in January, the road traveled here spreads behind me, waiting to be misunderstood and selectively remembered, as we all view our pasts.

            My father was a biologist, well versed in nature. He encouraged me to think about and experience the life around us. I well remember collecting insects, especially butterflies and moths, killing them in a jar with some gas (ether?), and pinning them in a box. I learned their species names, when they appeared during the year, what they ate and their life cycles.

            Soon after, astronomy beckoned and, delighting in a $30 reflecting telescope, I saw the craters on the moon, the bands and moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the crescent of Venus, sunspots, the double cluster in Perseus and the Andromeda nebula.

            The state of weather forecasting in the 1950s made it difficult to know when I could get out with my scope. This resulted in my studying the weather to be my own forecaster, and it became a greater focus than astronomy.

            The above hobbies seem unrelated, but on a deeper level they fit a narrative: why things are.
            Given our planet, the composition of its atmosphere and a temperature that allows a common fluid (water, in our case), life is possible.

            Given plant life, animal life becomes possible. Why are plants where they are? Temperature, humidity and soil type. Why do we have those? Geology answers: topography, water sources and soils. I read some works on geology. Amazingly, the size and placement of the Gulf of Mexico determines the economy of the US, the soil type and therefore, plant life. If you need to understand this intuitively, glance at a NASA photograph of the US at night, from space, and note the position of the lights. You'll see wealth and agriculture to the right of the 100th meridian, which rises north from the west end of the Gulf, desert and much poverty to the left. Neutral and acidic soils are to the right, basic soils to the left. Many animal and plant species act as if that meridian is a wall. The desolation continues west until meeting the Pacific, where wealth and agriculture hug the watery coast.
Water (rain) flows north and east from the warm Gulf. Elsewhere, you'd better have an oil patch or a ski resort if you want to build a community.

            The insects are where they are because they eat the plants that feed and nurture them.       Animals, especially birds, eat those insects. There are many more birds in the east than the west. Most plant and animal species treat the 100th meridian as an electric fence.

            Ah, birds! I became interested in birding about 1971 when this poor grad student needed a place to go on a super-cheap date with a new girlfriend (and wife-to-be, but who knew then?) A friend recommended going to Plum Island, a bird sanctuary near our Boston homes. Seeing a Red-winged Blackbird show off hooked me, and I've been a birder ever since.

            Birds are largely where they are because they eat the insects which eat the plants which grow in the soils under the weather on a planet with the “right stuff.” Yes, some birds are vegans, but they've just moved slightly down the chain.

            Do you see how things fit? Answering that is the thread of my interests. Before the word “ecology” made it onto posters, I was thinking along those lines. Of course, scientists making real contributions were working in that direction, but I was drifting along, too, metaphorically picking up bright pebbles along the way.

            I still follow the thread, trying to take photos of clouds, flowers, birds, butterflies, dragonflies and lunar craters.

            I garden a lot, now.
            I curse the insects, birds, rabbits and deer that devour the plants raised from seedlings.
            I try to create a soil mixture that will make the plants happy.
            I move the plants around the yard, finding places with the right amount of sun or shade for each.
            I kill a lot of plants unlucky enough to be stuck in the “wrong stuff” in the wrong lighting.
            I try to see it all as a whole.
            I can be seriously boring to talk to. Just excuse yourself and go back to the bar for a refill.
            Thanks for reading my essays. Perhaps we'll meet when the yellow sun is warm, the skies are blue and white, and the multi-colors stretch to the horizon!

Spring 2019 in the back yard


  1. Ethyl Acetate. My grandma taught entomology for 4-H one summer, because my aunt wanted to study it. I believe I and my aunt (only a few years older than I am) were the only students she had. I continue trying to remember the names of all the tiny visitors to my little college.

    1. Rather than deathtraps, I take pictures of them. Some have appeared in my blog, but mostly the pictures have been of dragonflies and butterflies. Someday I should put up an album of them, but I'd like more pictures before I do that.