Thursday, September 23, 2010

Life in the Undergrowth

Laura and I have been fans of the BBC nature documentaries ever since we watched the “Planet Earth” series a couple of years ago. The BBC is spending big bucks sending film crews across the planet, evidently with the philosophy of documenting pre-dieoff Nature before it dies off. The BBC film artists use the latest high-tech techniques, such as aerial photography with motion-canceling hardware to prevent vibration, or time-lapse photography to reveal slow-moving animal and plant behavior. The camera people are famous for sitting in an uncomfortable blind for a month until they get that shot of the rare snow leopard or whatever. The BBC has definitely taken the art of nature photography to the next level.

The “Life in the Undergrowth” series -- narrated by everybody’s favorite dotty old uncle, David Attenborough -- utilizes colonoscopy-type hardware to penetrate the mysteries of insect life underground. Inserting miniature cameras with fiber-optic cables into the insects’ burrows, they have uncovered some astounding aspects of insect behavior, and I have the sense that there’s an infinite amount yet to be discovered. I’m impressed by the naturalists who have patiently watched these insects long enough, and consistently enough, to figure out what they’re really doing.

What the naturalists have discovered is a miniature world of amazing complexity and elegance. I can’t help feeling that there’s some kind of INTENT behind it all, that mere chance can’t explain how all this came to be. Many times while watching the series I would blurt out, “How’d they come up with THAT behavior?” or “Who invented THAT?”

Here’s a favorite example: There’s a type of blister beetle that lives in the desert. When the babies hatch out of their eggs and leave the nest, there’s nothing for them to eat. What are they supposed to do? Well, hundreds of them climb together to the top of a plant stalk and form a tight cluster. Then they emit the smell of a female bumblebee. At first glance, the cluster of blister beetles looks and smells like a female bee. A male bumblebee bumbles along, finds the ball of tiny blister beetles, and attempts to mate with it. Hah, fooled you! Many of the blister beetles manage to climb onto the male bee as he attempts to mate. When he finally finds a real female bee to mate with, the blister beetles climb onto her, and are transported to her nest, which is full of pollen and bumblebee larvae. Snug in their new home, the baby blister beetles eat all the pollen, and then the bee larvae as well. Finally, fully grown, they emerge onto the surface yet again, to mate with each other and perpetuate their species.

When you consider that there must be thousands of examples of insect behavior every bit as cunning as that, it gives one pause. Clearly, human consciousness has a narrow, survival-focused orientation, and has trouble comprehending anything other than the most superficial aspects of the animal world (or the rest of reality, for that matter). Oftentimes throughout the various BBC documentaries I’ve watched, the narrator reveals an anthropomorphism that is irrelevant and doesn’t actually exist except within his own imagination. For example, predators aren’t the “enemies” of the prey. There’s no “desperate search for survival” going on. The natural world exists within a serenity (no matter how violent it may seem) that most humans have simply lost touch with. Actually, we humans should drop all concepts including “serenity” and realize that there is an amazing elegance to it-all that should perhaps inspire us to shut up and let the awe take over. A little awe never hurt anybody.

Part of the human problem is that our senses, and therefore our understanding, are more limited than we realize. We are mere apes with a brain mutation, and are overwhelmed by the noise of our out-of-control mentalizing. Traditionally, humans have postulated a God “out there” who waves his magic wand and makes it all happen. More recently, some humans, whom we call scientists, have postulated the theory of evolution, which is true enough as a mechanism, but comes up short in the “how could this possibly be” department.

The situation seems clear enough: Our human senses, and our physical instruments, are simply incapable of perceiving the vast majority of existence. We are nearly blind and don’t know it. We have fought our way to the top of the food chain and there’s nothing left to stop us. We lay waste to whatever we touch. We consider ourselves to be outside of Nature, superior to Nature. Such delusions cannot stand, not in the long run, as the imminent destruction of the biosphere is about to reveal. Some of us realize what is happening, in our vague human way, yet our understanding remains locked within the intellect, and our behavior doesn’t change. I don’t see any solution to our predicament, and I don’t think anybody else does, either.

In the meantime, these BBC documentaries will allow future generations, if any, to witness the natural world as it once was. This is such an amazing world of interlocking elegance, it’s a pity we’re so busy destroying it. But there I go, anthropomorphising again.


Blogger The Quiet Drummer said...

Thanks Gordon. Always love your thinking. Now you and Laura play some music too! Johnny em!

1:47 PM  
Anonymous jacques conejo said...


Good observations... While it's all fascinating, your reference to "awe" particularly caught attention....

Of late I've been more convinced that a familiarization with awe is our last best chance to make a difference in what's happening... Not that embracing awe and the processes that enable awe, will stop the slide toward extinction, but will enable us to have enough humility to begin finding coping skills that might reduce the impacts of the coming decline.

The state of awe, and its accompanying humility strips away the arrogance of our cultures. It seems to me, to be the only way to come to terms with the fear, desperation, anger, hatred, grief, and sense of betrayal that are undoubtedly soaring, permeating, manifesting in our societies worldwide.

It seems that after thousands of years of focusing on wealth, greed, power, control, separateness and domination, we might come to the inevitable realization that simplicity, humility and an attitude of wonder and gratitude, the posture of awe, is the only remaining rational pursuit for humanity.

Too bad we couldn't have learned that before we destroyed the planet.

Thanks for sharing your views..


4:01 PM  
Blogger Gordon Solberg said...

Thanks Johnny and Jacques, for your comments. I always appreciate comments.

Jacques -- About "coping skills," you are referring to the small minority that suffer from Denial Deficit Disorder? Because, for the huge majority, denial works just fine.

Are majority Americans even capable of feeling awe from real world stimuli? Other than the "shock and awe" type of awe. I fear these people are a bit burned out from too much media hyper-stimulation, and too little time for reflection.

I think people like ourselves are still way ahead of the curve, but it's always good to keep our "oh shit, now what?" faculties in top operating condition.

8:36 PM  

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