Saturday, March 8, 2014

Staring into puddles

 Another old piece written before my Dad died. I keep trying to write about ed reform, then get so utterly frustrated watching our last few public spaces get destroyed by monied interests it's all I can do just to remind folks what matters.

Children see things before they are taught those things do not matter. With enough education, they learn to avoid puddles. They no longer waste time staring at the edge of a pond.

My daughter, now old enough to have children of her own, still whiles away time at the edge of puddles. Yesterday we wasted some time on a warm June evening staring into a 15 gallon bucket of pond water, kept by the garden for watering plants. She did this partly to keep me company, but mostly because she wanted to. On the days I am sure I screwed up as a parent, I need to remember this.

If you stare at the night sky long enough, details emerge. A hundred stars turns into a thousand. If you hold a handful of pond water, you might not see anything at first. Look a little longer. Look for movement. It's there.

Yes, I know, these are beans not peas

I shelled peas today, something I love to do. I split the impossibly green pod, then run my thumb inside, freeing the peas. Some bounce away onto the ground, looking to snuggle into the earth. I leave them be.

Shelling peas is supposed to be tedious--it's one reason Americans wanted to get off the farm, I suppose. 
But just stop for a minute and think about what it means to live in a land where 95% of the people can be freed from, the drudgery of preparing their own food.
James E. Bostic, Jr
Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development
as quoted by Wendell Berry*
I enjoy shelling peas. My father, not much older than me, cannot shell peas anymore. Not sure he ever enjoyed it when he could, but he would today. He still enjoys eating them, though he turns blue now and again when eating things pea-sized. June is pea season. It is my father's last pea season.

The family microscope is a teaching scope--Kerry and I can look at another world together. When one wanders away from one's usual world, it's good to have company.

We stared into the same world together.

The critter peeked from under a duckweed leaf, saw an even tinier critter, and munched. It moved, well, gleefully.

I am, of course, anthropomorphizing....but gleeful is the right word. We can reduce it to the transfer of energy from one critter to another, but the subsequent burst of energy gave me a burst of energy--glee is contagious.

Turns out the critter was an ostracod. I never saw an ostracod before. I never thought about them when I used pond water to feed the garden. I knew that pond water made great fertilizer. I just never wondered why. "Glee" (or energy) gets transformed into plant growth. Which means ostracods die.

Photo by Anna Syme, (CC Attriution-Share Alike)
Ostracods have sex. Ostracods eat. Ostracods have baby ostracods.
Boy ostracods attract girl ostracods by using flashing lights. Boy ostracods use "a special long leg" to pass sperm into girl ostracods. I bet a boy ostracod enjoys his "special long leg."

Watering my plants with pond water just got harder.

In the 17th century, Antony van Leeuwenhoek made microscopes. Invented them, really. He saw things no one saw before.
I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort... had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort...oft-times spun round like a top...and these were far more in number.
                      Antony van Leeuwenhoek, in report to the Royal Society**
I cannot imagine the wonder coursing through Leeuwenhoek's veins, but I know what I felt as I sat with my eldest on the stoop, seeing critters we never imagined.

We did not know they were ostracods yet. We did not know much about them at all. We knew this much, though--they got excited when they found something to eat. We could see them munch on something else, then could see the "something else" in their bellies. Voyeurs, we were.

This is the world we live in. You have innumerable critters in your gut, in your nose, on your skin. You are surrounded by a cloud of bacteria. Every step you take destroys uncountable lives, but creates ground ripe for uncountable more.

We think we are special, and perhaps we are.

Yearning. Lust. Desire. I seek light, warmth, food, and love. So do animalcules. In January this would depress me. In June, with the infinite light of early summer, it makes sense. 

*From The Unsettling of America, in "The Body and the Earth," Wendell Berry, p. 96.
**Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723),


Sue VanHattum said...

"Watering my plants with pond water just got harder."

Michael, if this is really true, then I am awfully hard-hearted.

I'm planning to kill my old chickens when they are done laying eggs. I'm going to get some help, since I don't know how to do it. But I expect it to be more interesting than hard. Maybe I'll find out different.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

Oh, I've slaughtered animals, and while I still feel that moment before death with a tad more intensity than I'm supposed to admit, I have no problem doing it for food.

Just seems that killing a few hundred ostracods each time I water the plants was easier when I was unaware.