Selfies from Mother Nature

Ever since the Oxford Dictionary people proclaimed “selfie” as the word of the year for 2013, I’ve been struggling to find a way to use it in one of my essays. It would not be my first choice. As a word, it has all the charm of that scummy ring of hairs at the bottom of your bathtub drain. But in writing, as in life, sometimes one just has to go with the flow.

So I got to thinking about what kinds of photo self-portraits old Mother Nature would post, assuming she even had a smartphone. They might go something like this:

Here I am sitting by a tidal pool at the start of it all—over three and a half billion years ago—when life first appeared on this planet. Welcome to my kitchen. They’re too tiny to see now, but in these waters chains of complex molecules are slowly coming together. Wait till you see what they become.

And here I am at the bottom of the sea during what you humans call the Cambrian Period. It was one of my favorite times, when the diversity of living things on this earth literally exploded. The creature in my hand may look like a horseshoe crab, but it’s actually a kind of trilobite. Paleontologists have discovered over 20,000 different species from every continent. Must confess, I got a bit carried away with the cute little critters. They were the first animals with complex eyes. They ruled the seas for nearly 300 million years, and then they were gone. Oh well, time to move on.

Here’s me riding a Triceratops—yippee, ride ‘em, cowgirl! We’re nearly at the end of the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs of every description ruled the earth. I have a little surprise for them.

You see this big shadow where I’m standing? I’m on what humans will later call the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. It’s going to get dark around here real fast. That’s because a huge asteroid is directly overhead and just about to strike the earth. When that puppy hits, all those dinosaurs will be history. Have to admit, I hate to see them go. But 165 million years is long enough. Out with the old, in with the new, I say.

Here I am at the beach under clear blue skies again. Boy, my “little” asteroid sure made a mess of things. Couldn’t see the sun for years. It got so cold I had to put on my woolies. But it’s over now, and we’re at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. OK, I admit, there were a lot of casualties besides the dinosaurs. Over three quarters of all living things on earth went extinct. Evolution is a messy business, and sometimes you just have to hurry things along a little. But fortunately I still have plenty of stuff to work with. See my squirrel-like animal friend here? He doesn’t look like much. But he and his warm-blooded kin are about to become the next big thing. Humans sometimes refer to this era as the Age of Mammals, but it could also be called the Age of Flowers. Just look at the beautiful magnolia in back of me.

I’m standing at the edge of Grand Canyon, one of my most sublime creations. It gets more hits on Facebook than Madonna or Justin Timberlake, whoever they are. It still amazes me after all these years what you can accomplish with a little uplift and erosion. I don’t much cotton to politicians, but there was one by the name of Teddy Roosevelt who said it best: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages (that’s me) have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Here’s Lucy and me lakeside in what humans now call Ethiopia. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to be famous someday. Smile for all your future followers, Lucy. There, I got it—great one. She’s not much for words, but she’s one of the earliest humans. Soon she will die—sorry, Lucy—for life was very hard back then, especially if there’s a big cat like the one over there that’s about to eat you. In about 3.2 million years, give or take a month, human scientists will discover some of her bones and go gaga over them. 

Think I’ll go online to check out what pix you humans are posting these days. Oh dear—what is that? It looks like somebody’s… Gross! And there’s more. After all these years I thought there was nothing that could shock me. I was wrong. What are you people thinking?  Hmmmm.… maybe it’s time for another asteroid.            

                                               ©Gene Twaronite 2014        

Originally published in 5enses April 2014

On the Origin of Toaster Ovens by Means of Artificial Selection

Of the millions of organisms estimated to be alive today, most occur in the tropics. In describing this diversity, biologists often use such words as “staggering,” “incredible,” and “outta sight!” I wonder, though, how many of them have ever had to venture alone into the urban jungle to purchase a new toaster oven.

Within the world’s city centers can be found another kind of diversity—a diversity composed not of exotic orchids and tree frogs but of people and their artifacts, and the complex, interrelated systems of structures and urban spaces where we go to buy such artifacts. These systems—otherwise known as malls or shopping centers—present a dizzying array of products and services, and are as diverse in their own way as any tropical rainforest.

So, needing to buy a new toaster oven one day, it was off to the mall I went. Simple enough, but for someone like me who has not bought a new toaster oven in decades, it was a daunting task. Just choosing a store took me the better part of the morning. Sears, Wal-Mart, Target, Filene’s, JC Penney, Best Buy, Home Depot, Nordstrom’s, and scores more: none gave the slightest clue as to where the best toaster oven might be found.

Finally, I did manage to locate a store having a good selection of models and prices—or rather, a “staggering” selection. Indeed, one whole wall of the store was given over to various toaster ovens in every possible size, shape, and price. I think it was then that I began thinking about toaster ovens in Darwinian terms.

I must have stood there in the aisle for a full hour, staring in wonder at this assemblage of toaster ovens. So this is what the forces of a free market system have bestowed upon us, I thought. I suppose I should feel thankful for having all these varieties to choose from. In other less fortunate parts of the world, I would be standing in line for weeks—assuming that I could obtain one at all—or would be playing the black market for one of those coveted American models. But here was the opposite side of the coin. How exactly does one choose?

All I wanted was your basic, every day, dependable, and of course cheap toaster oven. Yet, even though there was a considerable range in price, most of the models on display were, on closer inspection, remarkably similar in outward appearance and purported function. And just as “nature is prodigal in variety, though niggard in innovation” (Darwin, The Origin of Species), so too did there seem to be little real change here evident since the last toaster oven I had purchased. Oh sure, there was this or that gizmo, or some new kind of coating, but all were just slight variations on a theme, displaying fewer real differences among them than did Darwin’s Galapagos finches.

I reflected a while about the mechanism at work that must have produced these variations, slight as they were. Gradually I came to the conclusion that each toaster oven is not independently created (as was commonly thought by most scientists, just a few generations ago), but is the end result of countless artificial selections made, over what seems like eons, by bewildered consumers like me. During this long evolutionary period of trial and error, there must have existed thousands, or even millions, of intermediate toaster oven types on the road to these more successful models. Perhaps they will be uncovered someday in the trash record of our past.

These selections are artificial because they are based not on any significant morphological differences in the ovens, but on the shiny contrivances of the merchandiser’s magic. A new knob here, a new temperature setting there and—Voila!—a “new variety” is born into this world. And for only $59.95. May Darwin forgive me, but I see a slow, inexorable “descent of man” in all this, at least in our dignity.

As for my own dignity, it suffered a descent of its own as I stood at the checkout counter with the model I had finally chosen. The woman behind me, having undergone the same ordeal, asked me how I had managed to choose from all those models, and why I had chosen my brand as opposed to hers. Resisting the wave of maniacal laughter that rose within me, I shrugged and replied, “Because this is the brand I bought last time.”                                                             ©Gene Twaronite 2013

Originally published in 5enses Magazine, March 2013.