My Advent reading this year was Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (John Murray, 2015), a meditation on the reasons why humans love the natural world, and how engagement with nature can, in turn, be beneficial for our wellbeing. His personal fascinations with butterflies, moths and birds provide most of the examples but, as I was reading this book at the same time as I was writing the previous post on “little round green things”. As a result, I found myself reflecting on my own fascinations with the microscopic world.
A characteristic of ecologists, I have realised, is that there is almost always a tension between their scientific training and a primeval emotional response to nature. This is not unique to ecology: geologists and astronomers certainly share it, but it is not a universal trait of scientists. In those disciplines where it occurs, however, interactions with the natural world occasionally transcend strictly dispassionate objective observation and spill over into the language of joy and wonder. “Joy” being, in McCarthy’s words, “concentrated happiness” whilst “wonder” is “a sort of astonished cherishing or veneration … often involving an element of mystery”. We are straying away from the language of science and towards a religious and spiritual dimension that many ecologists would, I suspect, be reluctant to acknowledge.
“Mystery” is the word that ties together the disparate worlds of science and religion. It implies “missing knowledge”, but much more than just an absence of necessary facts. Every time I peer at samples from the River Ehen through my microscope I get the full gamut of joy-wonder-mystery-related emotions even though I have seen similar views many times before. Part of this can be attributed to “missing knowledge” but not all. I am acutely aware of my own shortcomings as I struggle to identify the organisms that I see, as well as the limitations of the taxonomic literature on which I depend. I am, in addition, perpetually astonished that so much diversity can live on such a small scale and, even when I have done my best to name the algae present, I still struggle to explain why the communities differ over the space of a few metres and between our monthly visits.
Regular visits for five years have not diminished my wonder at the microscopic world of the River Ehen: this submerged boulder has obvious patches of brown diatoms and green algae, but also gaps where the algae are much less abundant. We can make coarse predictions about which species are likely to be found in particular locations, but the factors that determine their distribution on much finer scales are still shrouded in mystery.
The word “mystery” in short, carries an emotional heft that simply “not knowing” does not. It rises above ignorance, partly because mystery, by definition, implies an awareness of this lack of knowledge. The word “mystery”, in a modern, scientific context, also links to the concept of complexity, recognising that interactions between variables is often such that it is very difficult to predict outcomes. That “astonished cherishing” that forms part of McCarthy’s definition of wonder needs to include an element of wariness. We approach – or, at least, we should approach – ecosystems in the same cautious manner that Moses approached the burning bush. Whether or not you believe in a higher power, recognition of both the complexity of nature and our limited understanding of this is humbling. Humility, in turn, generates reverence, and we have completed the journey from the hard, dispassionate language of science to the fringes of spirituality and religion.
None of this precludes trying to improve our understanding of the natural world, nor of using this knowledge to inform decision-making. What I have written above is no more than the Precautionary Principle, albeit expressed in quasi-mystical language. Whilst the Precautionary Principle is an instrument of policy, my interpretation is more personal. Each of us, individually, should be finding time to revel in the wonder of nature which, in turn, will fuel the sense of mystery and, in turn, temper any inclination to rush to intemperate conclusions.
Some of the diatoms that are abundant in the River Ehen. Top left: colonies of Gomphonema(see “Diatoms and dinosaurs” for more about this species); top right: colonies of Fragilaria tenera, which shares the habitat with at least two other similar representatives of the same genus; bottom left: Tabellaria flocculosa. Genetic studies suggest that this, too, is probably a complex of morphologically-similar species. Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50thof a millimetre).
We should, however, never assume that joy, wonder and a sense of mystery are ever-presents in the make-up of ecologists. McCarthy makes the point that a love of nature is not a universal human attribute, although a propensity to love nature may be. Just as that propensity can be nurtured through adolescence into an adult appreciation of the natural world, so a failure to exercise that appreciation as an adult can lead to it withering again. I am acutely conscious that ecologists of middling seniority and above often spend more time staring at spreadsheets and in teleconferences than they do engaging directly with nature. Within government agencies the reduction of time available for field ecology since the onset of austerity in the UK means that I often now deal with people who are unable to conjure visual images from the words and numbers that populate their datasets. And, in my own work, I have to consciously make time to observe the natural world beyond the tight constraints of my professional life.
Above all, never forget that this love of nature exists in the first person, present tense or not at all. Natural history documentaries on the television and (dare I say) blogs such as mine are the herbs and spices that enliven your diet, but the naturalist’s basic sustenance needs a commitment that goes beyond staring at a spreadsheet or sitting on a couch.