On a cold gray day trying to be blue, large blowsy snowflakes swirl out of a pewter sky. There is no wind. The harbor and the bay beyond are calm and hold the still water in their open palms. Long Point stands watch. Suddenly, midmorning, the sun shoulders its way through the curtain of clouds and a silver streak shimmers across the water. Brightness fills the air.
There are no boats on the water, no people on the beach. The gift of silence blankets everything, pierced occasionally by the cries of gulls, a few quacking ducks, and distant crows calling. These birds are here for their own sakes on this chilly day, gathering calories or pursuing their love lives, but we who behold them gain a life beyond our own. Animated life charges the still life of this day on the beach. Landscape or seascape, beautiful as it is, is limited.
Someone said that all of outer space — the planets, the galaxies — present facts but have no meaning: only our Earth can give us that. I would add: our living Earth.
These past couple of days have given us extreme cold. But what is cold but the absence of heat? How strange to define something by what it is not. And then what is heat? These are questions for physics or chemistry. People have remarked on the sea “smoke” rising from the water. A friend who amazingly swims throughout the winter mentioned the slurried water: more chemistry.
I am more interested in how the living go about their lives. Not so much how they adapt to these extraneous conditions — that is more chemistry, anatomy and physiology, counter-current heat exchange, and so on. What interests me is how they relate to each other and to us — how they behave.
Recent research reveals that even trees, the least animate inhabitants of the animate world, communicate with each other through their intertwined root systems. Then there was a study that demonstrated personality types among water striders; some of these little insects were consistently shy, some more adventurous.
The more we look, the more we find. Ravens actually deceive each other. Most songbirds are not the models of fidelity we thought they were: they engage in extra-pair couplings. Chickadees in a flock can recognize each other. Dolphins have been documented to cooperate with humans in fishing enterprises. Humpback whales sing songs that rhyme and share them with each other. Sperm whales live in close families. And, incredibly, a researcher demonstrated (I can’t imagine how) that the heartbeats of tiny krill in the Antarctic actually elevate when they are set upon by feeding whales. Well, of course they would! They are alive, just as we are, and they want to stay that way.
Yes, I know that all matter is made of atoms and molecules and is subject to physical forces. I know that every thought and gesture that I or a herring gull (or a krill) make is the result of an electrical charge across a synapse involving neurotransmitters and circuitry. Everything can be reduced to this basic level. But I also know that life flows through us all and is a force that we share. And a wonder.
Here is my cat, in the middle of the night, unbidden, and with great regularity, fitting her little form into the crook of my sleeping body. We have little in common — but each other.