Tuesday, February 04, 2014

In wildness is the preservation of the world?

In earlier times, when I was still teaching, it was my habit to occasionally take a wildflower, or piece of rotten bark, or pinch of oil into a biology lab where I had access to a high-quality dissecting microscope. I'd put my sample on the stage of the scope and go exploring. A hawkweed blossom, say, became the concise equivalent of a tropical jungle, teeming with wildlife.

We bemoan the loss of wilderness, and rightly so I suppose. But there are vast tracks of wilderness that we do not despoil, on a scale too small for annihilation by our marauding hand. Elephants and gorillas may be in danger of extinction, but the ants are doing just fine.

In fact, they seem to find my kitchen countertops entirely to their liking. A paradise of crumbs. An Eden of spilled nutrition. Just look at them, armies of them, as small as the period at the end of this sentence, scampering in gleeful forays.

To my eye they are only featureless specks. But I know that they have legs, antennae, mouth and anus. Sense organs. Reproductive strategies. In other words, we have a lot in common, the ants and me, including common ancestry. It's all a matter of scale. For me the wilderness is mostly gone. For the ants, it's just changing form.

In The Creation, E. O. Wilson writes: "Ants alone, of which there may be 10 thousand trillion, weigh roughly as much as all 6.5 billion human beings." In the kitchen, I still outweigh the interlopers, but take the whole island and I suppose they might outweigh me. In any case, they don't seem to be aware of a loss of wilderness.

And while we are on the subject of scale, consider the nematodes, mostly tiny, threadlike worms whose millions of species make up four-fifths of all animals on Earth. A handful of loam might contain a thousand. They live virtually everywhere -- soil, water, desert sand, arctic ice, hot springs, and as parasites of plants and animals, including humans. Pinworms and hookworms are nematodes. For the nematodes, we are part of the wilderness.