Thursday, September 23, 2010

Under the surface


Somewhere, in something I have written, I recall quoting with approval this passage from Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire:
For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces -- in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child's hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl's thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind -- what else is there? What else do we need?
Pleased enough with surfaces. Yes, I know what I meant. Pleased enough with this world, here and now, this world of light and matter. Not wanting or needing that other world that occupies so many people, a world of supernatural agencies, spirits, disembodied presences. Give me a world I can see and hear and touch and taste. Give me a world with heft and substance, a world with surfaces that shine and shimmer. What else is there? What else do we need?

Well, maybe not.

Today I was scanning the current issues of Science and Nature, with their usual illustrations of the molecules of life, the nuclei acids and the proteins. The elaborate machinery that unseen, under the surface, endow the apple's flavor, the silk of skin, the abrasion of sand. Think of it. Atoms that are mere whiffs of resonance, binding into molecules, twisting and turning into endless shapes, fitting together like hand and glove, endlessly spinning and weaving, all without the slightest conscious participation on our part. Abbey's world of surfaces spun out of the mysterious, endlessly active, subsurface stuff of the world.

Pleased enough with surfaces? Not really. I want to know what's under the surface, that world of molecular frenzy that cannot be touched or seen, a world that in its own way is as beautiful and as meaningful as the macroscopic world we consciously inhabit. We don't need to know it. We can live a fulfilling life without knowing it. But I want to know it. I want to know what goes on behind the curtain of the senses. I want to hear that silent and ceaseless music of creation.

(The illustration is from M. Swierczek, et. al., "An Electronic Bus Bar Lies in the Core of Cytochrome bc1," Science 23 July, 2010.)


(P.S. Re: yesterday's post. I know there are ruby-throated hummingbirds in New England, but I have never seen one on campus, or along the Path. I thought you might enjoy this photo of a hummingbird nest and my thumb from our place in the Bahamas.)