As I write this I’m at my standing desk looking out the window into my backyard. A squirrel has found the bits of corn in the birdseed I scatter every morning. His movements are sudden and discrete over large distances, but once he’s reached the corn they become more fluid and exploratory. Perhaps his entire territory is within my backyard. Today, he seems willing to test its boundaries more than I’ve seen him do before. I think it’s because he’s in love. Earlier I noticed him playing with a second squirrel. He was rolling around in the dirt and sniffing the other squirrel’s erect tail. They would spontaneously chase each other in tight circles, then break off and stare at one another, their play brief and excitable. I think my squirrel is happy to introduce his territory to the other squirrel. He’s got plenty of food here to share, and a spot underneath the shed, safely away from the nosy pawing of my dog. After the other squirrel leaves, my squirrel seems emboldened enough to more closely inspect the wall of my house, and underneath the porch. He’s been made brave by love, ready to expand his boundaries. Then he stands on the tallest rock in the backyard, seemingly looking for where the other squirrel has run off to.
In between watching the squirrel in my backyard and writing, I’m also watching a YouTube show called Journey to the Microcosmos. It’s a science documentary show that looks at microscopic life. It has the dramatic feel of a BBC Nature Series, but instead of narrating a big cat’s hunt, it tells the story of a ciliate or a rotifer searching for food. Hank Green is the narrator. It’s a great show. Animalcules of all sorts living out their lives in the span of a smudge on a glass slide. The video quality is such that you can see these tiny creatures acting out many of the same plots that happen at our animal kingdom’s scale. There are predators and prey. There’s hunting and scavenging. Boundaries are explored. Safety is returned to. Mistakes are made, tricks are fallen for. There are lucky escapes and unfortunate accidents. Random walks. Tried and true strategies. The same relationships between object and environment at very different scales. Brief but excitable moments.
I’m struck, going back and forth between watching the squirrel through my window and watching the ciliate and rotifer on my screen, at this similarity across size and scale. It inspires a sense of awe, of something just beyond the horizon of my understanding. I feel dumb just to be aware of it.
It reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago called “Emergence.”
I am Thy body biological.
I am that which binds membranous guilds.
I made my pact with the protist
and tended my grex. It was in my house
they fed together becoming multicellular.
I divide alike and make equal under
the sacred worship of my plasma.
Who are you to ask of my origins?
I hold the nucleoid at the very center
threading spools of acids like a seamstress.
It was my cunning that yoked the great
mitochondrion into my environs.
It was I who organized the organelles
blessed them with waxy lipids
to smooth their tissue. Thou art all of me.
I beat Thy heart that begets Thee.
I make Thee eat of the earth beast and flora
and it thinks for Thee Thy metabolic thought.
Thou seekest me? I am the mucous offing.
I circumscribe and make all accoutrements.
My craft is chemistry my materials elemental.
Who seeketh invitation to my abode
will find it everywhere with walls enclosing.
I am the eggshell of a cell and its carton.
I am the swirling arms of a solar system.
I am Thyself too organ upon organ
a sense of wholeness and want of union.
If you’re wondering about the odd form of the poem, the reason why each line is broken up into two parts has to do with the fact that I was interested in Old English poetry at the time. Old English poetry often had bisected lines where each half had a set number of syllables, and the halves were connected by a sound pattern. They were usually sung I think. I can’t remember exactly now, but I was trying to imitate that style in this poem.
The impression, however, the real genesis of the poem, was the same one that I’ve had again today, just now, staring out my window and writing, and that I have quite frequently, especially when I watch science videos about the very big or the very small. A desire, born of awe, to try and give shape to that awe, to whatever force it is that manifests these relationships at different scales. Is it a force like the scientific forces of electromagnetism and gravity? Is it a force, like Thomas Dylan says, “that through the green fuse drives the flower”? Why does life have this fractal quality where patterns repeat at different sizes and scales? Why does being aware of this repetition fill me with awe, and make me want to write about it and give shape to it?
Thanks for reading.