8. Eighth in a series of short writings about our ecotourism trip to Costa Rica
I first encountered the comparative questions in Douglas Hofstadter’s book Metamagical Themas: (1) In what ways are things different in spite of their similarities? And (2) In what ways are things similar in spite of their differences? These two questions are at the heart of any exploration, whether it be of biological materials and situations, or political, economic, or social phenomena. Thus I stare out into rainforest from the gondola of a canopy ride, seeing leaves that are similar to ones in our Nebraska home but many times the size, plants growing on plants, decay, palm inflorescences hanging down like bead-curtains inviting tourists into an imaginary arboretum, far-off monkeys shaking branches as they jump among the trees, a toucan a mile away, isolated on a high dead stalk, tangles, termites, mosses, ferns, and epiphyte communities. What could you do, I ask myself in these situations, if you won Powerball and could crank the clock back fifty years? The answer is simple: come to Costa Rica and study Bromeliaceae. Apply the comparative questions to whatever is living in the water trapped within their leaves.
I know, the word sounds technical, scientific—“Bromeliaceae”—but it refers only to a family of plants, a family with about three and a half thousand members mostly in the New World tropics, and some of which you can buy in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the middle of the winter, not only in a local nursery, but also in the grocery store. Pineapples belong to this family, and pineapples are a major Costa Rican export. But the comparative questions that would guide my Powerball-funded fantasy are applied to the communities of animals that live within bromeliads. These communities have all the properties of ideal research material, including the most important property—accessibility—and the second most important—they are not under the oversight of any institutional animal care and use committee. No seventeen page form is required for me to ask: what kinds of tiny invertebrates live in the rainwater drops between those leaves?
And so I cash my Powerball check and retire to the tropics with a turkey baster to collect my stuff and microscopes to study it. And with my microscope, what do I find in the teaspoons of tropical rain collected in these swirls of leaves? The answer is the same as what I found as a child, using the microscope my grandfather had given my father when he was a child. That answer is found in one of my books, Pieces of the Plains: Memories and Predictions from the Heart of America:
If microorganisms could write, their story might also seem vaguely familiar to a work also laden with metaphorical baggage. With your lenses, you have fallen, Alice-like, into a round hole, and just as Alice-like, the results completely alter your perception of reality. At first, the denizens of this tiny world reveal no sense of purpose, no sense of direction, no awareness of past, present, or future, nothing that connects them to any familiar sign posts or behavioral traits by which we negotiate the realms of money, health, military adventure, agriculture, politics, sex, sports, or religion. You do not belong in this realm you have just entered; you have no idea what processes actually govern its existence, what its inhabitants do for a living, or how they got there. Only your education prevents you from deciding, like long-ago ancestors would have done, that they simply appeared spontaneously. Slowly, very slowly, your evolved internal wiring, established neural circuits, and past experiences, begin to re-assert themselves. You are, after all, a human being; if you have any power at all, it is to impose your will on nature, at least in terms of interpretation. They eat; they mate; and, they fight, just like I do, you think. Suddenly they sort themselves out into a pattern you recognize: thousands of them, all vibrating and smacking into one another, have gathered around an air bubble. Oh, you think; they need air; they want air. You have absolutely no idea whatsoever what they need; they are incapable of want. Your conclusion is fantasy. Five minutes have now passed. What you have seen through this lens is an irresistible drive to impose your own guiding mythology on the natural world and thus believe that you have, in fact, also imposed your will.
But you cannot control what happens in this jar of grass, water, and time without creating a human work of art. You can kill everything with heat or hydrochloric acid; you can change the community makeup by adding a handful of rice or fish food; you can decide whether to let the water evaporate or keep it filled to a certain mark; and, if you’re really a masochist, you can try to isolate one of the community members in “pure” culture. But once you perform any of these acts, you’ve created something that would not have otherwise occurred naturally. The blasé ease with which you add that handful of rice mimics our approach to nature in general, whether it be mowing the yard, planting trees, digging a ship channel through the Mississippi River Delta, or burning Amazon forest at the rate of fifty acres a minute, year after year. Eventually the infusion culture will collapse, no matter what you do. Eventually there will be no more movement under the lens. The difference between your jar and the tropical forest is one of the big take-home lessons: you can start another jar, generating that mystery at will, but you can never replace the biological diversity lost when that forest is gone.