Sitting in the soft sand behind the back reef, waiting for the sun in the cloud bank as the reef comes to life – a fish ruffling the surface of the pool behind the reef, a lone grackle breaking the silence. A surreal quality of light and atmosphere: air very calm, heavy dark clouds massed to northeast, a mackerel pink breaking through to the east. Very quiet and still. For the first time in many weeks, I’m acutely conscious.
0600 exactly, while staring absent-mindedly at the horizon, the sun rises above the line. Bright low light dispersing the heavy clouds. It strikes me that I am not a born scientist, as I’ve sometimes fancied myself. I was not one of those children who instinctively wonders about how things work, who is constantly taking things apart. No, I think I was born more of a mystic, mesmerized by the mere basic fact that things – and particularly animals – exist at all, that they work, more than how they work. Perhaps this is true of children generally, who enter the world without rational reasoning or logic but with a wide-eyed wonder. It is this that draws me again and again to this small, particular patch of sand, facing the rising sun, among the hunting pelican silhouettes, the lone turnstone, bobbing intently along the waterline, the struggling mangrove seedling and sand spurge, the spreading metallic pool of the back reef, the breathtaking drama of the gathering morning clouds. What captures me and holds me here, paradoxically, is the blank unfathomability of this scene from a scientific perspective.
We often think of the human soul, in our characteristically self-centered way, as the highest flowering of organic consciousness, even the pinnacle of evolution. But I wonder if it is not, in a way, exactly the opposite, if it is not instead the thread that still connects us to our animal heritage – not the base instincts and physiological drives, but the organic connection to the environment that has birthed and sustained us, changing, through millions of years of birth and death, change, continents splitting and colliding, jungles drying, oceans freezing, plains flooding, and all through this process, some fraction of the life before us survived and has passed down, through the ages, its heritage to us: its wits. Its ability, surely largely unconscious, to survive, its familiarity and identification with the milieu in which it must survive to continue itself. Its consciousness of the universe, which, as we’ve become increasingly complex and subtle organisms, manifests itself increasingly complexly and subtly: There is a bird — it means that fish are schooling below, where I can’t see. Here is a quickening of the breeze, and cooling – rain is coming. Here is a waving expanse of tall grass – game will be abundant. Here is a certain type of tree, were we can escape from predators. All of these things, blended into our animal human bond to the rest of the universe around us, the absolutely crucial essence of our survival throughout our history, and expressed in a way we barely comprehend, in a feeling of peace at calm daybreak in good weather, in contentment and fullness at the prospect of abundant and diverse animals — is this the soul?
So perhaps science and mysticism are not so far apart. Not in object, even if in method. My lean was toward the mystical sense of nature. And this, I think, may explain my attraction to systematics and taxonomy, which to my mind are in essence a celebration of the bounty of nature rather than an attempt to understand it. Of course these fields are important to understanding how nature works, critically so, and articulating their specific role in that regard is a mandatory foundation of grant proposals and justifications of our existence as practitioners. But if the truth be told, these things are secondary to the very fundamental, instinctual drive: biophilia. Literally, love of life. It’s a cliché that variety is the spice of life. This is understood by everyone, and it has many consequences, ranging from marital infidelity to hobby collecting, general human restlessness, and so on. Surely this is a deep and fundamental part of human nature. And the taxonomic impulse is a natural extension – the joy and excitement of discovering something entirely new. After this, after training, after cultivation of the rational scientific method, natural science becomes a tool for understanding larger questions about the history of life and the world. But it starts from the same place that draws a small child to pick up a colorful shell and explore it with wide eyes.
“I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
[Starfish photo copyright 2004 Richard Ling.]