Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Wonder in a Drop of Water

Have you ever wondered about a drop of water?  You should, as the whole of human existence, all human thought and creativity, rests on a slight bend in the nature of water. 

Round your lips and gently blow on the surface of a teaspoon.  See how the water in your breath has collected on the cool metal.  Place it on the tip of your nose and let the spoon hang there.  Dip the spoon back in a glass of water and glide it smoothly across your arm.  You see, water is glue and a lubricant at the same time.  Bizarre, isn’t it?    

Lucky us, we live in a place in the universe that has water aplenty.  Our home is covered with a liquid ocean of the stuff and the air is infused with it.  Look outside on a wintry day, and you see water in all three states of matter.  The transition between ice, liquid, and gas releases or absorbs a huge amount of heat, and that energy allows water to cycle through the natural world.   The rain brings life to the land, creating our amazing earthly biosphere.

Dip a teaspoon in a glass of water.  Watch the drops of water form on the edge of the teaspoon.  Lift it and follow the drop as it makes its way down the silver metal, perhaps collecting other drops along the way.  Picture closely the curved shape of the drop on the arc of the spoon, because a bend is what it’s all about.
It just so happens that the molecule that makes up water, one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, has a bend to it, and that makes one side a little more negative.  Like little magnets, the H2O molecules pull on each other just so, not too much and not too little; they flow together in such a way that water forms into a drop.  Without this subtle pull there would be no way for plants to draw water from the soil.  Life as we know it would not exist.

Human CreativityScoop a teaspoon of salt and stir it into your glass of water, and watch it disappear.  The power to dissolve things allows water to carry a whole bunch of chemistry within it.  So add a few other elements and we have everything that matters… the evolution of life.  You and I are an incredibly complex soup, 90% water, a little carbon, and a whole lot of chemistry. 

That water is life is evident, but it is also the ether of consciousness itself.  Dissolved salts and that little molecular bend give water excellent conductive properties.   It is the medium that carries the electrical impulses through our nervous systems, allowing us to live, love and paint the Mona Lisa.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Dunes of Plum Island

protected beach
Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge
Is there a place, or a landscape that stirs your soul more than any other?  For me it’s probably the simple beauty and marvelous symmetry of sand dunes.  I’ve traveled to the Saharan sands, walked along the dunes that line the coast of Florida, and visited Great Sands National Park in Colorado.  But the truth is, I don’t have to go very far at all to stand in the hills of sand I love most.

One of my favorite natural places is an eleven-mile long sandbar in northern Massachusetts called Plum Island.  It’s a wildlife sanctuary and as a child I saw my first bald eagle there; and also my first red fox, great blue heron, piping plovers; and the place I caught my first striped bass fishing at night along the surf.  Last year, I witnessed a young seal making its way along the surf, and a great cormorant wading in the offshore swells.

The southern 2/3 of the island has been designated as Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. There is so much wildlife because Plum Island is an estuary, a place where the ocean tides mingle with the sweet water of two rivers, the Merrimac to the north and the Ipswich to the south.  As are all estuaries, Plum Island is one of the most productive natural habitats in nature, and plays a critical role in the local environment.

The dunes of Plum Island are filled with a wide variety of plants.  Beach plums and short hardy grasses abound on the side that faces the Atlantic by the haunting sound of the surf, on a long seemingly endless beach.  The inland side sits on some of the most beautiful tidal marshland you will see anywhere.  In between, you can walk along dunes that run for hundreds of yards and stand fifty feet tall, hosting a shrubby forest and the occasional tall pine.

Beach DunesIn my first trip on the island, with my tenth grade biology class, I never could have imagined how a sandbar would shape my life.  When I lived in the Andes and wrote my first novel about an ocean world, I thought about Plum Island and how it often closes long stretches of the beach for nesting plovers.  Can you look upon a scene so beautifully free of human footprints without being inspired?

It is one of the first natural places I visited with my wife, when we were so very young and the possibility of our now life-long affair was as ephemeral as the icicles that hung off every branch around us.  It was in the middle of winter and the place sparkled from a blanket of ice and crusty snow of a New England nor’easter.  And now, twenty five years later our teen-age son swims in the tall waves, oblivious to the chill of the North Atlantic.  It is his favorite place as well.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Why it's so important to be creative

Monet - Sunset in Venice

There’s no other satisfaction like creating something.  That sense of accomplishment nourishes the soul in a way nothing else does. When the bible says we were created in the image of God, I wonder if it meant not so much that we look like, but rather that we create like God.  

In my case, my fingers compose words and they appear on the screen in front of me… black, white and flat words, but wholly beautiful and powerful.  I am sharing my thoughts, literally part of who I am, with you.  It’s absolutely incredible.
My hands could be playing the piano instead, shaping mud and earth, holding a camera, or perhaps a paint brush dabbing flames of color on a canvas.  They could be arching through the air as I’m dancing or wielding a hammer.
When we think about what it means to be fully human I see no other thing more essential as the ability to create.  Making is as needful of a thing for us as having a friend or a lover.   So I say, make creation a priority in your life.  Find a way to be creative and be fully whole.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Get ready to rock your mind

Rock field on Mt. Jefferson, NH

When you pick up a lowly rock from the ground, you are touching something unimaginably incredible.   Yes, you have probably heard that a rock is a collection of minerals, and that minerals are made from elements, created by stars.  It’s all star stuff, the rocks, clouds and landscape you see in the image, and that’s pretty amazing, but there is even more to ponder.

Thinking about a rock is pretty impressive.  For instance, if you compress the age of the oldest rock on earth to a year, the pyramids were built a few seconds ago.  The elements that make up that rock are older still, perhaps almost as old as the universe itself.  So, twirl that rock round your fingers and then forget all that…

Imagine nothingness. 

A white dot pops into existence… welcome the universe.

This dot is so hot that the best minds among us are still wondering what it might have been like.  All that will ever exist lies inside this white dot.  It inflates, and as it grows all of the reality we humans know settles into being.  Inside the growing white dot are the laws of nature, like the fact that two bits of matter will gravitate towards each other, and the closer they get the more attractive they become.

Big Bang
NASA Illustration of a Supernova

Hydrogen is the first element that appears and it soon collapses into vast spheres.  With pressure comes heat, one of those natural laws.  Eventually the heat grows so great the hydrogen spheres ignite into nuclear furnaces.  Through more natural laws, matter begins to fuse together, and transforms into progressively heavier elements.  The new suns eventually use up all of the fuel and explode with even greater energy, and heavier elements are born.  The dust created by the supernovas in turn collects into more stars, and lo and behold we have all of matter.

Lagoon Nebula, NASA Image
It just so happens that because of the laws of nature, a very tiny amount of all that matter takes a different route.  If matter is traveling at the right speed and direction it will begin to spin around other matter through a balancing act between gravity and centripetal force.  The rock you are holding happens to be one of those bits of matter that, instead of falling into the sun, stayed in orbit as part of a planet or a moon, or perhaps a comet, meteor, or asteroid.  

I am writing this blog because of all the laws of nature have converged to make it so.  The rock in your hand would not exist otherwise.  Above all, the universe is the patterns within it, patterns that emerged with the big bang.  Next time you pick up a rock, look what rests between your fingers, know that you literally hold the universe in your hand, for all those patterns are there.  Feel the weight of the rock in your hand, and know it as expression of how attracted it is to the ground.  Twirl it around your fingers and wonder at the audacity of it all.