Friday, February 24, 2012

What is the Meaning of Life?

Sounds like a BIG question. I'll try to make it smaller by saying upfront: I'm not talking about human life. At least I don't think I am.

As part of my project "The First Billion Years," I'm thinking about the great unfolding of life over the eons. But I'm also thinking in snippets, snapshots if you will, of moments that recall realizations about life. Sort of redolent unearthings, glimpses of the unfolding, scents on a breeze, the sound of laughing water, the quiet, perhaps poorly communictated understanding that all living beings are connected by a common ancestry.

This little series represents the smallest of the pieces I've made so far for "Billion Years." When I first made them I had no idea what they would turn out as.

Wallowa Trio

Sleeping on it an idea, almost unstoppable, came to mind. It was a moment during an extended field trip I took for my Harvard work in 1991. I was exploring a little-visited corner of southeast Oregon, the grasslands and mountains of Wallowa County. About as far from "Portlandia" as you can imagine.

I wasn't having much luck finding Cladonia lichens, the subject of my doctoral research, because they don't like grasslands and they prefer mountainous areas that see plenty of rain and less snow. But there I was in the morning mist next to a little creek, a hillock of sandy soil, some mosses on a rock and the most charming little group of Cladonia pyxidata, polished with dew, growing on the moss.

Wallowa Closeup

I didn't have a camera with me then, only collecting bags. But the memory of that moment is somehow so powerfully clear it has stayed with me over two decades. It's as though those lichens were set up just for me, in a kind of museum diorama explaining evolutionary ecology and its place in the puzzle of billions of years of life on Earth.

Wallowa Family Assemblage

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