The Right Stuff


  • Full display of Darwinian struggle as each plant tries to grab moisture, nutrients, sunlight and outgrow the others lest it be left to wither and die.  “Survival of the fittest” obviously, “nature red in tooth and claw” viciously competing,.  But natural selection does not occur in one afternoon, survival strategies are annual, seasonal, and extremely specialized.  Perennials like the reeds and roses have their own clocks, annuals like the ragweed and grass have others, and flowers on roses or clovers are timed with precision to become pollinated and produce fruits at different times to avoid some of the crush.  Tolerating variety, thus avoiding the diseases and insect plagues that infest monocultures, is a more subtle way to make it to another generation but sometimes more effective than wiping out all competition.
  • My peers and I were taught that the mission of science was to simplify and find basic laws and causes, and in that we usually made assumptions that went way too far.  The cheetah chasing two gazelles on the plains _ obviously the survivor will be the swiftest.  Nature, we thought, will perfect simply to swifter and swifter until an ideal form is reached.   If that were true, birds would rule the world.   Humans, we thought, would perfect to smarter and smarter. Environments and niche survival is complicated and messy.  We are finally understanding our own avoidance of niche environmental traps is also complicated and messy, and potentially species-endangering.  It remains an open question whether intelligence as we know it can be harnessed for more than a few thousand years without self-destruction.


  • By now, everything that can be growing is doing so, exposing the casualties of a difficult winter.  This beach rose is a reminder that even with all the right stuff _ sun, air, water, nutrients, warmth _ nothing much happens without what used to be called the “vital force.”  Back in the days of Galvani and Frankenstein, biologists confidently predicted that by adding just the right electric spark to just the right assortment of chemicals life could be spontaneously generated.  That has proved not to be the case, in spite of many experiments.  Nor can the force be transferred from a living organism to a dead one _ nothing will bring this bush back to life.
  • Back when I went to school, scientists were also confident that they had nearly cracked the deep mysteries of the universe, at the final layer of quarks and leptons.  Developments in quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and fundamental structures of reality have shaken that belief.  It may be that some levels of our reality are truly unknowable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable.  I wonder if “life force” will not turn out to be as elusive as dark energy, phantom strings, and entropic time itself.


  • Weeds seem to get by with very little.  No nutrients, no water, blasting sun or deepest shade, they are always present and almost always doing very well.  It helps that anything that lives under such adverse conditions is usually just labeled a weed without regard to particulars.  After the next war, probably the only life left to live (and thrive) on Earth will be bacteria, cockroaches, and ragweed.
  • Weeds always seem prototypical Americans.  Industrious, hardy, colonizing, forcing out whatever might have been there first, smothering landscapes in a monotonous blanket of conformity.  I have to admire them for their grit and pluck and immense survival skills.  On the other hand, I regret the niches and odd wonders that are obliterated in their triumphant progression.


  • Trees, hawkweeds, myriad grasses growing robustly in Huntington Historic Cemetery.  Tablets with names, dates, and bits of wisdom or advice are scattered about in pale echo of Ozymandias, with hopes that loved ones and posterity would remember or care.  One true legacy of those who “rest” here, of course, is the nutrients returned to the soil so the cycle of life can refresh and renew.  Another is providing a place of repose for the weary traveler, who can quietly contemplate vanity and mortality.
  • Daily papers claim retiring baby boomers desire to “leave the world a better place.”  Since nobody agrees on the meaning of “better” in such a context, what is really meant is that old people want to stay in control as they age and after they die.  I wish such egotistic popinjays would gracefully step aside, but as has ever been true, only death itself can allow the world to become whatever it will be. 


  • Dune grass colonizing a bit of beach away from bathers and children.  In this it is helped by a developing symbiosis with poison ivy, which keeps humans out far more effectively than signs.  Although there seems to be scant moisture available, constant seepage from underground streams along this shore provides dampness most of the year for thirsty roots.  The oyster shells were probably deposited by a feasting gull after being dropped and cracked open
    on a rock, pavement, or unlucky car in the parking lot.
  • I believe we need to preserve vast wilderness and semi-wilderness for the health of our planet and biosphere.  But I do not wish to live near nor visit such reserves.  But in the more civilized and tame surroundings I prefer, I love these inconsequential intrusions of uncultivated nature.  There is a lot to learn, and even more on which to spiritually center, by observing dune grass, gulls, oyster shells, and poison ivy.   Our place and meaning intertwines with theirs, and I do well to reflect on such things deeply and often.


  • Spartina has not suffered from lack of water this spring.  Grasses are probably the most numerous flowering plants in any environment except rainforests and open water.  It’s easy to ignore them, but each has its own beauty and niche.
  • I read once in a gardening book that the most permanent thing anyone will ever plant is a lawn, which may be around for centuries, unlike most trees and shrubs.  A single blade of grass is fragile, just like an individual human (in spite of Robinson Crusoe.)  But a clump of grass is as tough as a tribe, a meadow nearly as indestructible as a civilization.  I wonder if we should not consider ourselves more a bit of a lawn than masters of the universe. 


  • For some time now, there has been abundant sunshine and warmer temperatures.  The missing ingredient has been moisture, which finally arrived last night with storms and a cold front, although more is needed to saturate the parched soil.  These ferns and other non-flowering plants will appreciate it.  For all the annuals from here on it is a sprint to solstice, taking advantage of maximum solar energy, building incredible vegetative structures from water and trace minerals and the atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Within weeks meadows will be in extreme bloom and insects too will explode into the sudden bounty. 
  • Perversely, I am already taking this all for granted.  The world is completely green _ well, it was so yesterday.  What’s new?  The dark brown winter and glaring cold snow cover is forgotten.  I’m already seeking novelty _ bright flowers, exciting sunsets, people’s vacation activities.  There are fine advantages to living in the moment, but there is also a dangerous shallowness to perceptions.  I try to balance and remember and meditate more deeply, but I find myself also seduced to a quicker pulse by the long days and soothing warm breeze and even gentle rainfall.

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