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"To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work," writes the poet Mary Oliver. I'm trying, I'm trying. I have spent the last hour of late afternoon on the porch floor watching an army of ants move a dead moth. The ants are as tiny as grains of salt, their legs and antennae barely visible to the unaided eye. The moth is the size of a double postage stamp. It is like watching a crowd of humans attempt to shift a 747 jumbo jet by the power of muscles alone. What the ants lack that humans might exploit is the ability to act in concert. No foreman directs their efforts. They fidget. They flurry. They scurry under and around the moth even as they heave and push. They come and go, apparently at random, laboring momentarily, then dashing off. They are the antithesis of concert. Yet somehow the moth moves toward the edge of the porch with an almost imperceptible inevitability.
It is the solstice. I am on the island of Exuma in the central Bahamas, seeking respite from the New England winter. A new moon's tide licks the rocks at the top of the beach. The sun slides to its western rest. I'm down on my belly with the ants. Where are they going? To what nest? Some common purpose keeps the dead moth moving in a foreordained direction, although to my gaze the ants seem to be pushing in every direction at once. Clearly they are communicating. But how? A language of strokes and prods? A tickling of antennae? A vocabulary of chemical traces, emitted and received, each molecule locking into an appropriate sensereceptacle, like lock and key, triggering an impulse to the ant's brain? Ensconced in a subterranean larder, the moth will be a copious food supply. I imagine the moth labeled with "Nutritional Information," like a loaf of bread or box of cornflakes: carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, fat. The ants fidget. They flurry. Any passerby would stop to watch a crowd of humans attempting to move a 747; the ants and the moth are an equal spectacle, differing only by a matter of scale.
The moth moves across the porch, millimeter by millimeter, a brief stage of a longer journey of energy from the core of the sun to the table of the ants. Protons fuse at the center of the sun, releasing energy. The energy diffuses upward, taking several million years to reach the sun's surface, where it is released as heat and light. The light streaks across ninety-three million miles of space, reaching the Earth eight minutes later, where it falls upon the green leaves of plants. The plants store the energy as carbohydrates. A moth stops at a flower of a plant and sips the sugary nectar. It uses the nectar's stored energy for flight, reproduction, and building a body rich with organic compounds. The moth beats its brains out against my porch light and falls dead to the floor, where it is discovered by a scout of a colony of ants. The call is raised: "Food!" Now the rest of the colony arrives, at first in ones and twos, then en masse. A storm of purpose ignites their tiny brains. Humping their backs and fiddling their legs, they have a go at the moth. The moth drifts across the porch floor, taking the packaged energy longer to cross a few feet of painted boards than it took to travel from sun to Earth.
It is a feature of the way the world is made that two protons together have less mass than two protons separately. This is a startling but indisputable fact. Weigh two protons separately, then weigh them together: the numbers don't match. The numbers differ by about 1 percent. This curious difference is not to be explained by some law of nature; it is a law of nature, as basic to the way the world works as any fact in our possession. The mass discrepancy is equivalent to an amount of energy given by Albert Einstein's formula E = mc², where c is the velocity of light. The velocity of light is a big number; squared, an even bigger number. A tiny mass difference is equivalent to a huge amount of energy. Make protons stick together and you have access to this energy. There's a catch, however. Protons have positive electrical charge, and like charges repel. To make two protons stick, you must overcome the electrical repulsion that drives them apart. You must get the protons close enough together so that a short-range but powerful nuclear force comes into play. The nuclear force is the glue that holds protons together.
Nowhere on Earth is there sufficient force to overcome the electrical repulsion of protons and make them stick together, except in a few hugely expensive particle accelerators and fusion reactors — and in the fury of atomic bomb explosions. However, protons are easily squeezed together at the centers of stars: all that huge weight pushing down. Protons fuse at the center of the sun and 1 percent of their mass is turned into energy. There is a famous line by the poet Dylan Thomas: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower." Thomas was more right than he realized. That word: fuse. Fusion is the force that drives the sun, and sunlight drives the flower. The energy of proton fusion at the sun's core flows upward, through half a million miles of the sun's bulk. It percolates through the sun's seething interior, absorbed and reradiated again and again. As the energy approaches the solar surface, it is carried along by the churning mass of the sun itself, in huge convective loops of hot gas. At last, at the furiously roiling surface, the energy is hurled into space as heat and light. Every second at the sun's core 700 million tons of protons — the nuclei of hydrogen — are fused together. Every second five million tons of proton mass disappear from the universe, replaced by an amount of energy equal to the missing mass times the speed of light squared. Every second the sun throws five million tons of its own substance into space as radiant energy. The sun never misses so tiny a fraction of its bulk. The sun has been burning steadily for more than four billion years, and in all of that time it has used up less than a thousandth of its mass.
Every second, five million tons worth of energy is thrown into space by the sun. Eight minutes later, one two-billionths of that energy is intercepted by Earth. That's five pounds worth of the sun's vanished mass that falls every second upon the Earth. About a billionth of an ounce's worth of that energy falls upon my three-quarter-acre plot of land on the island of Exuma, where it is absorbed by palms, palmettos, coco plums, sea grapes, sea oats, bur grass, beach grass, and beach morning glories. The plants photosynthesize, building carbohydrates. Moths sup and die. Ants devour moths. Frogs eat ants. Humans eat coco plums. Sand flies eat humans. The energy is shared around. Our little community of flora and fauna sucks up every last drop of that billionth of an ounce of the sun's missing mass, that "force that through the green fuse drives the flower." Dylan Thomas and Albert Einstein were contemporaries. They died within a few years of each other in the mid-1950s. Poet and scientist, they perceived the essential unity of matter and energy. They recognized in nature a force that drives all things, creative and destructive, holy and terrible. Its source is the sun.
Here, on this three-quarter-acre patch of land, I am part of a full web. Bat moth. Free-toed frog. Ani. Ant. Brown racer snake. Snail. Mouse. Woodstar hummingbird. A swarm of mostly unidentified flying insects at night about every outside light. Adorable gecko and abominable sand fly. We are all of us dependent upon one another, and utterly dependent upon a curious property of protons that is built into the foundation of the world. Mostly we go through life oblivious to the source of animation. To trace the web — to follow the energy up and out of the sun, across ninety-three million miles of space, down through a cascading chain of plants and animals — requires paying close attention. "Ancient religion and modern science agree," writes John Updike. "We are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention." Scientists know a lot about paying attention; attention is our business, our raison d'être, down on our bellies, noses to the moth. And what is more natural than to speak of the beauty we see? John Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters: "The greatest thing the human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw." Exact description is the highest praise.
First Quarter Moon
A photograph in the book review section of the journal Nature shows three moths drinking from a trickle of liquid that flows from a huge glistening eye. The caption says, "The Asian moth Hypochrosis baenzigeri makes an elephant cry and then drinks its tears." Let me repeat that: "The Asian moth Hypochrosis baenzigeri makes an elephant cry and then drinks its tears." I have no idea how moths provoke an elephant's tears, why the tears are more to be desired by the moths than nectar or plain water, or what benefit, if any, accrues to the elephant from this curious arrangement. But the photograph and the caption stick in my mind, lingering somewhere between ecology and poetry.
First, there is the startling contrast in scale between the elephant and the moths: the elephant's eye is twice the size of an individual moth — a great dark pool from which flows a river of tears. Second, there's the poetic tension between tears and nourishment. But more than contrasting scale, more than poetry, it is the interdependence of moth and elephant that I can't shake from my mind, the sad and beautiful evocation of symbiotic life on Darwin's tangled bank. The word symbiosis (two or more different organisms living together in mutually advantageous association) was coined more than a century ago, in an 1877 scientific paper on lichen anatomy. Lichens consist of a cohabiting alga and fungus. The alga photosynthesizes carbohydrates, upon which the fungus feeds. The fungus supplies the alga with useful minerals. Neither organism is capable of existing independently unless supplied with the proper nutrients; together, they are hardy enough to survive harsh environments where neither creature could exist alone — the snowy tops of mountains, the margins of glaciers, desert rocks.
Symbiosis is a driving force of evolution. Biologist Lynn Margulis was the first to suggest that the many-compartmented eukaryotic cell — of which all multicelled animals and plants are composed — was a product of symbiosis. The oxygen-respiring units of eukaryotic cells, called mitochondria, resulted when respiring bacteria were incorporated symbiotically into larger microorganisms that lacked the ability to respire; the mitochondria gained a reliable food supply, the host cell gained the advantages of respiration. Similarly, the hairlike appendages of eukaryotic cells called flagella, which give cells motility, likely originated as thin undulating bacteria that latched onto larger cells for feeding, found the arrangement satisfactory and never let go; the host cells gained propellers. Ditto for the photosynthesizing units called chloroplasts; what began as symbiosis became unity. The alliance of three or four simpler microorganisms for mutual benefit created a supercell that swept all before it. Every cell in my body is a eukaryote, as are the cells of the ant, elephant, moth, and other multicelled organisms. In "The Lives of a Cell," Lewis Thomas wrote: "If it is in the nature of living things to pool resources, to fuse when possible, we would have a new way of accounting for the progressive enrichment and complexity of form of living things." There's that word again: fuse. It is not yet clear to biologists how much of this tendency to pool resources is in the nature of living things and how much is merely useful evolutionary accident. I am inclined to believe that the tendency to fuse, to combine resources, to complexify, was there at the beginning, in the aftermath of the Big Bang—an inevitable consequence of the way the world is put together.
Nowhere is the inevitability of symbiosis more vigorously contested than in the scientific debate about Gaia. The Gaia hypothesis (named for the Earth goddess of the Greeks) is closely associated with Lynn Margulis and the British scientist James Lovelock. It proposes symbiosis on the scale of the planet, embracing all creatures great and small, from elephant to moth, from great blue whale to bacterium, together with rocks, air, and oceans, regulating the planetary environment so as to make it optimal for life. Gaia is a superorganism, say Margulis and Lovelock, as large and as old as the Earth itself, of which we are all parts, as our cells are parts of our own bodies. Many scientists consider the Gaia hypothesis far-fetched, based more on wishful thinking than observation, and without a causal mechanism to make it work. Others see Gaia as a powerful insight into the way of the world, a new metaphor to replace the "world as machine" metaphor that has guided science for the past four hundred years. All thinking is metaphorical. In science as in poetry, we understand by making analogies. We are always on the lookout for analogies that unify our experience of the world. Is the Earth a clockwork ticking according to the laws of mechanics, as Newton and his successors supposed, or is it a living organism, as the Gaians propose? Is the world best understood by breaking it into its component parts, as one might take apart a clock to see what makes it tick, or as an indivisible unity, a living organism? Of course, the terms of the questions are not mutually exclusive; any strategy that engages our attention with the world is likely to be useful. Nevertheless, the organic metaphor has begun to change the way we perceive and understand the world, focusing our attention on fusion, symbiosis, community.
For the moment, the world-as-machine metaphor remains dominant in science, and perhaps properly so, for it has proved to be a vibrant way of attending to nature's patterns. But what is appealing about the world-as-organism metaphor is the way it draws us into poetic alliance with the objects of our attention. As when I lie on my belly and watch a determined troop of ants shift a moth across the floor of the porch. As when I read, "The Asian moth Hypochrosis baenziqeri makes an elephant cry and then drinks its tears."
Full Moon — Old Moon
It is perhaps a conceit on my part to imagine that I am part of a web that includes the ant, moth, gecko, sea grape, palm. I have a neighbor on the island who, to build his house, cleared his property with a bulldozer. Scraped it clean. Down to bare coral rock and sand. Not a blade of grass left standing. We humans have that much power. Nothing can bear our assault if we set our minds to destruction. But it is not just physical force that binds us to our fellow creatures. Our spirits, too, are linked. I do not mean to sound mystical. I am not talking about spirits as the disembodied souls of traditional religion, or as the vague cosmic resonances of New Age philosophy. I am talking about heart and mind as they are embedded in matter. When we cut our hearts and minds free from the web of life — from the green fuse — we sever our roots, and something fierce and flowing ceases to animate us. Our souls may be inextricably entangled with our bodies, but they are not bounded by the envelopes of our bodies. Our souls have roots in the ages, in the fusion of protons at the heart of the sun, in the burgeoning multiplicity of life. Our spirits throw out tendrils. We send runners. The growth of our spirit is — can be — lush, tropical. Our souls are bounded only by the limits of our knowledge. As I write, a giant bat moth is splayed against the stucco of the terrace wall outside my window, dark on light, six inches wide from wing tip to wing tip, the surface of its wings a mottled wavy brown. The Cubans call them brujas, "witches," and believe them to be the embodied spirits of the dead. In the Bahamas, too, they are greeted with trepidation. This particular bat moth has remained stationary for an hour, illuminated by the light of a rising full moon, its wings spread like two black hands in supplication. I think of another line of the poet Mary Oliver: "If you notice anything, / it leads you to notice / more / and more."
Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has coined a name for the human love of other species: biophilia. Biophilia is our best hope for survival and happiness on this planet, he says. But how am I to love the other creatures with which I share this three-quarter-acre plot of rock and sand: the scorpions, for example, which inevitably attract a quick whack with the heel of a shoe, or the sand flies, which we swat and spray without remorse. The ethics of biophilia are complex and subjective. The trick, I suppose, is to distinguish love from squeamishness. We eat meat, but we are happy to let someone else do the slaughtering. We understand that deer herds must be culled for their own good, but we are unable to look down the barrel of a gun into the eyes of a white-tailed doe. Scientists kill many animals in the course of medical and biological research, and most of us are content that they do so. Death is the terrible and necessary corollary of life. Ants require the death of the moth. The free-toed frog requires the death of ants. Death is nature's way of portioning out the energy, wringing the rag of energy dry, exploiting every ounce of vanished mass at the core of the sun. Like symbiosis, killing is a creative engine of evolution. Certainly, for many of us, not having to look our victims in the eyes makes killing more palatable.
Our hummingbirds are cherished. Our geckos are welcome, as long as they stay out of our bed. The bat moth ditto. Mice — well, when I came to the island I started out with traps, until I looked into their sad Disneyesque eyes, accusing me from beneath the sprung wire. And the ants — ah, yes, the ants. What do we do about the ants, tiny sand-colored ants, as small as grains of salt? This morning I found them in the sugar bowl, a seething swarm. A marching line of ants stretched down the side of the bowl, across the cupboard shelf, down the wall, along the countertop, back up the wall to a crack in the plaster that leads to who-knows- where. I disposed of the contents of the sugar bowl. Then I took a wet sponge and obliterated the line of marching ants, all the way back to the crack, a clean murderous swipe that must have smushed a thousand lives. It is hard to find much to love about the churning, despicable mass of insects that invaded my sugar bowl. The Latin word for ant is formica. Formic acid, widely used in industrial processes, occurs naturally in the bodies of ants. ("Would you be calm and placid," rhymes Ogden Nash, "if you were full of formic acid?") From the Latin root we also have the scientific name of the ant family, Formicidae, and a bunch of other ant words, such as formicary (a nest of ants), formicate (to swarm with ants), and formication (an abnormal sensation of ants crawling over the skin). The very sight of that formicating formicary in my sugar bowl was enough to make my skin crawl. Biophilia, my eye. Swish with the sponge. A few hours later the marching army is reestablished, this time fixed on some grains of sugar I had inadvertently lift on the counter. Another swish, another thousand lives.
But now curiosity was getting the best of me. I carefully killed every ant in sight. Then I placed a pinch of sugar at a new location and went for a walk. When I came back, the marching army was established on a new course, anchored on the pinch of sugar. From the crack in the wall, which may be far from the nest, scouts fan out looking for food. One of them stumbles upon a source of nourishment — a pinch of sugar. It finds its way home, presumably following the chemical equivalent of Hansel's line of bread crumbs, where it communicates its discovery, then leads its myriad companions back across a vast desert of walls and countertops crisscrossed with chemical tracks. This sophisticated feat of navigation and communication is accomplished with a brain the size of a pinpoint. "The universe is not rough-hewn, but perfect in its details," wrote Henry David Thoreau in "The Natural History of Massachusetts"; he was talking about ants. Ants employ the most complex system of chemical communication of any animal, according to E. O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, Harvard entomologists and the world's foremost experts on ants. Ants are jam-packed chemical factories, their glands endlessly active, puffing or squirting secretions for every purpose. "Follow me, I've found sugar." "This way, this way!" When tastes and scents fail, they have other modes of communication — tappings, strokings, graspings, nudgings, and antennations — an unabridged dictionary of ant gab. Sometimes ant communication runs dangerously amok. Wilson and Holldobler describe a group of army ants that was cut off from the main foraging party: the soldiers of the group were so strongly attracted to each other that they formed a "mill," going blindly round and round in each other's tracks for a day and a half until all fell dead.
Not rough-hewn, but perfect in its details. That tiny brain. Those multiple secretory glands. That little threadlike nexus that attaches the back half of the ant's body to the front half (wasps get credit for the "wasp waist," but ants are no less pinched in the middle). Ignoring this perfection of detail, I sweep up the ants with the sponge and lay out more bait to see what will happen. Murder has become research. "Nature will bear the closest inspection," continued Thoreau; "she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect's view of the plain." I soap down the walls and counter tops to eliminate chemical tracks. I put out pinches of sugar and watch and wait. I look for scouts. I want to see the marching army emerge from the crack. I want to observe their habits of communication. Nature has no interstices, said Thoreau; every part is full of life. Even in its tiniest manifestations, life and intelligence are miraculous and beautiful. I wait, I watch. I pay attention. My respect for the ants grows. My sponge makes its killing journeys with increasing reluctance.