Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Egg and nest

Every now and then a book comes along that combines natural history and fine photography in such a brilliant synthesis that I feel compelled to mention it here. This has been the case with books on pollen and creatures of the deep sea, among other subjects. So let me add one more: Egg & Nest, with photographs by Rosamond Purcell and text by Linnea Hall and Rene Corado (Harvard University Press, 2008) -- a visual hymn to the eggs and nests of birds.

The eggs are beautiful, in their colors, glosses, surface markings, and shapes, often exquisitely adapted for camouflage, or even to keep them from rolling off a nesting ledge. Lovely, yes, but no more so than we would expect from the refining nudge of natural selection.

Every egg is a "miracle" of development -- as is the development of any embryonic organism -- but somehow we become immune to the wonder of it. After all, the making of an egg takes place out of sight, the chemical machinery of the body doing what it is supposed to do, as automated as a clockwork. We no more marvel at the making of an egg as -- to use a crude analogy -- the making of a turd. But oh, what a difference!

The nests are something else.

And here, in these photographs, they are marvels of animal architecture, constructed of various materials, in various designs, sometimes elaborately woven, lined with fluff and fuzz. Beak and claw guided by eye and brain. In plain sight. Behavior, we call it, to distinguish it from the making of an egg on autopilot. Those clever birds, we say.

Of course, the nests are no less genetically determined than the eggs. A bird doesn't have to be taught to make the nest characteristic of its species. It is somehow encoded in the DNA, in the same "four-letter" code that makes the egg, but how is a matter of such deep mystery that, for the time being, we turn the mystery over to the artist -- in this case to Rosamond Purcell -- to rub our noses in the sheer mind-blowing beauty of nature's bounty.