Tag Archives: DNA

Transcendence on the headlands

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) taken at King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

One of the most transcendent moments of my life happened on the Marin headlands, within view of the glittering city of San Francisco and the elegant curve of the Golden Gate bridge. It was March 9, 2014, and the wildflower season had started. I had been hiking and photographing them for three hours, working my way uphill, out of sight of the ocean. I’d come through a variety of landscapes: the mostly dry meadows at the beginning of the hike, full of California poppies, cut through by a stream that gave willows a foothold. Then the rocky ups and downs of the even drier hills, their gravelly trails edged with pockets of shooting stars and milk maids. As I got closer to the juncture with the coastal trail, chaparral gradually took over, filling the air with the pungent smell of sagebrush.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey-Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

By the time I got to the top of the headland, tired, ready to head downhill and find my car, it was dusk. The Pacific, living up to its name, lay serene and luminous ahead of me. In memory, the city isn’t there. It was all silver light, on the rolling hills behind me, the pale gray twilit leaves, the stone escarpment in front of me, on the  sea, in the air. The warm spice of the feathery sage filled me, contrasting with the cool light.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) taken at Terra Linda Open Space Preserve, San Rafael, California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), Terra Linda Open Space Preserve, San Rafael, California. Each flower is about the size of a quarter.

As I began to move again, I was suddenly overcome with the wildness of the place, and my place in it. Completely aware of this living, breathing convergence of life — the soft wind off the shimmering ocean, the ancient rocks, the growing dark, the scent from the ghostly plants, the woman walking. I was both dissolved into it and moving, whole, embodied, through it, a wild creature myself. I felt a great, exultant love for every pulsing molecule around me, and equally for the feeling of being in it, part of it, the part that could move through itself, through the lingering heat and the cooling breeze. That could feel the silver light work its way through my cells.

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) King Mountain, Tiburon, California, by Betsey Crawford

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

I would love to live in that state of open-souled awe every moment of my life. All sorts of things — grocery store lines, traffic, dentist appointments, the grief at a loved one’s illness —  work against such a possibility. I am often, in the poet Wordsworth’s words, surprised by joy; but after opening his poem with that line,  the rest speaks only of loss. Transcendence routinely rises, and is swept away by the mundane. The memories — I still remember another night of silvery, windy light under a full moon when I was 18 — can stay a long time. And there are many small, seemingly inconsequential moments of joy — a sleepy child’s arms around your neck, sunlight filling a winter room,  the sudden call of cicadas, telling you midsummer has arrived. But feeling completely dissolved into the natural world I love so much is rare, and I have been hugging that moment since.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken at King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Though perfectly happy to feel transcendence without figuring out why we have this wonderful ability, as a lover of all things DNA I am intrigued by philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that awe has been chosen by evolution to more firmly attach us to life on this earth. The more delight we take in living, the more we will strive to survive and reproduce. He feels that our pleasure in being alive and connected to the beauty and enchantment around us is the basis for an innate spirituality, something we knew long before we created religions to explain it.

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

I’m a little resistant to reducing awe to the biological imperative to reproduce, though I love the idea that evolution would choose something so entrancing to ground us to our planet. I prefer the thought — echoing cultural ecologist Thomas Berry, Buddhist Alan Watts, cosmologist Carl Sagan — that consciousness is the result of the long, slow evolution of the universe’s ability to contemplate itself, to turn eyes on its wildflowers and silver seas, ears to its birdsong and rushing water, skin to the feel of stone, of bark.

Milk maids (Cardamine californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamine californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are the size of a dime.

But even this lovely thought doesn’t quite reflect what I felt that evening on the Marin headlands. I didn’t feel that I was the universe reflecting on itself, I felt like I was the universe. And not merely one infinitesimal expression of it. And not — though I love this fact — that I and the radiant molecules around me were all made of the same elements, descended from the same stars. I felt, briefly and gloriously, that there was no distinction between me and the vast, wild, perilous, gorgeous cosmos.

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) King Mountain, Tiburon, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Spruce family planning

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOne of the first things we noticed when we drove into Alaska in July was that vast stands of spruce — and Alaska is full of vast stands of spruce — were dark brown at the top. Seeing them from a distance, as we drove through a valley, we wondered if they were suffering from a disease that was killing them from the tips. When we got closer, we realized they were laden with cones. At first, I assumed this was a normal approach to long summer days, but found, on a guided walk through the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, that 2015 was a mast year for white spruce.

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

The female cones tend to cluster toward the top of the tree.

Mast refers to the products of trees — cones, acorns, catkins — and many species have mast years, when they produce an above-normal abundance of seeds. Spruce cones are the primary food of Alaskan red squirrels. The squirrels live on the forest floor, digging tunnels under and around the roots of the trees, where the cones can fall right at their doorstep. They eat the seeds at the base of the female cone scales, tossing the rest of the scale and the remaining ‘cob’, out their front doors, where the ever-mounting detritus becomes a whole environment in itself.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Every few years, to keep ahead of the voracious squirrels, who can each hoard up to 9,000 cones a season, the trees produce extra cones. When our guide, Ruth, was telling us this, we joked that spruce had family planning all figured out. And that got me thinking about what we actually meant by those light words. What had they figured out? How had they figured it out? What in the spruce had ‘noticed’ that producing more cones every few years meant they could insure enough offspring without spending the energy to produce extra cones every year?

redsquirrel_looking_over_shoulder

Thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for this photo. No squirrel would stand still for me.

We know, if only from watching our dogs go into a decline the second we pull out a suitcase, that animals have consciousness and an emotional life. We don’t put it on a par with our own, and don’t, as a rule, apply any concept of consciousness to plants, though there is a growing, and utterly fascinating, body of work dedicated to exploring what plants know and feel.

In my work as a landscape designer I would ponder why gardens grew better for some people and not others, given that their care was basically the same. I had a client who was extremely ornery. I learned quickly to call him in the morning so I didn’t run into his afternoon drinking. Despite a sense of humor and a certain amount of charm, he could be hard to be around. But his landscape was one of my all-time favorite jobs. He was an artist and a bon vivant. He loved beauty. He had been a photographer for Life magazine, and his house was full of lovely things from all over the world. His garden, despite his routine grumpiness, grew like mad.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

A counter example was a couple in their thirties, successful professionals, extremely nice, though not necessarily warm or charming. Their house was rather bleakly furnished. Every time we met, they both stood with their arms tightly folded the entire time. Their garden did the same thing. It dutifully grew, but it never took off into the kind of riotous abundance that my ornery client’s did.

Another couple with whom I worked for many years started out with a garden that grew grudgingly for a while. But, after both successfully recovered from cancer, it was fascinating to see how they and their garden changed. My clients seemed more at ease, more open. They renovated their house and painted every room a different luminous color from the sea and sky outside. Their garden got more and more lush, and even unusually deep in color.

east-hampton-garden-designed-photographed-by-Betsey-CrawfordThough the idea of sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of plants has enormous appeal, spruce will clearly never follow our example on family planning: make appointments, discuss options, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy, remember to use whatever we get there. Instead, every few years, usually following a warmer prior summer, they will produce extra cones. To do this they have to ‘know’ something. To grow riotously for one person and not for another indicates a capacity to respond. To grow toward the light indicates a capacity to see. Plants don’t have the neurology we use to translate vision into images, as far as we know, but the chemical process is not that far from our own, and some of the genes that direct it are the same. Nature can’t be bothered to give every living thing its own personal set of genes, so both humans and plants have inherited genes from our common, ancient, bacteria ancestors.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-dens-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Squirrel apartment building

I love all this, because I love to contemplate our interconnectedness. I love the idea that I am, literally, in the same family tree with the spruces I pass on my hike. That I share up to 80% of my DNA with the squirrel chittering at me, up to 25% with the branch she sits on and the cone she’s about to hide. The ferns brushing my shins, the moss on the edge of the path, the fungal mycelium strands winding through the soil under my feet — these are all kin, descendants, like me, of our unicellular forebears. And, as carbon-based forms, we are all descendants of the earliest stars, whose death launched carbon into the universe.

We live in a world where we differ from all other humans across the globe by less than 1% of our DNA. Nevertheless, we’re having a hard time convincing our very tribal selves that we are all related. Given that challenge, seeing spruce trees and squirrels as family may seem like a low priority. But I find that feeling embedded in the life force that is also the forest makes it easier to remind myself, in the constant brush of personality that makes up everyday life, that underneath our wide-ranging but superficial spectrum of differences, we are all — every one of us — intimately connected.

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

 

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address I’ll send you notices of new adventures.