Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What I learned from geese, lichen and coccolithophores

Bejeweled grass.

The other night I woke up at 4 a.m.. Jovie was snuggled in on one side of me as she often is early in the morning. The dog was squeezed in on the other. It was tight quarters. I wasn't ready to be awake, but couldn't go back to sleep.

I tried to focus on my breathing. Because via meditation and yoga, I'd heard that can help. Just concentrate on the in and out, in and out.

As I lay there in the dark, the room warm and still around me, I tried concentrating on my breathing. Only, instead of just following my breath, I found myself trying to control my breath. The rhythm of my breathing didn't seem calming enough – relaxing enough for sleep. So I focused on making it so. But that only made me more aware of how wrong my breathing was. How it was making me feel light-headed, but not sleepy. 

I put my hand on the dog's stomach, hoping his natural respiration would help guide my own. But his breathing was faster than mine, probably because he's smaller. So then I thought I'd listen to Brad – but he must've been dreaming – his was irregular (and maybe a little bit snore-ish). So I just lay there. Awake. Kind of angry because I couldn't even breathe right.

All it is, is breathe in, breathe out, right? Breathe in, breathe out.

But that's not quite right, I realized. Because there's a pause after breathe out, before breathe in. It's not a constant thing. It's breathe in, breathe out, pause, breathe in, breathe out, pause. 

Like the sound of ocean waves at the beach.

Otherwise, it's kind of like hyperventilating or the feeling I get after I walk up the stairs cuz I'm really out of shape. It's too much. Me assuming my conscious mind knew more about the right way to breathe than my unconscious mind. Me deciding that the solution was more doing, less pausing.

I need to just allow the waves to roll in, rather than control the current. Eventually, I drifted back to sleep.


Maybe it's not a mistake that we use the ocean as a tool for relaxation. That the sounds of waves are soothing to us. I just learned that the ocean is responsible for every other breath we take (we can thank the forests for the other half). During an episode called Epic Battles, RadioLab shared a story about these little one-celled marine plants armored by a unique limestone coating that live in enormous colonies on the surface of the ocean. They're called coccolithophores. Despite their tiny size, these organisms can be seen from space as milky turquoise swirls; they are responsible for the famous White Cliffs of Dover. And they produce oxygen, which is good for us oxygen-breathing sorts

Coccolithophores and other phytoplankton as seen from space.
Photo courtesy of NASA/Flickr
Currently, researchers are trying to get a better understanding of the impact of giant blooms of these tiny creatures – particularly the role they do or don't play in global warming. 

They can survive and actually thrive in nutrient-poor areas of the ocean, providing a food source where other phytoplankton might be scarce. In addition, their light color reflects visible light, that would otherwise be absorbed in the ocean and stored as heat. Given concerns about our warming seas, this is probably a good thing. 

They are made using carbon, so researchers believe in the long-term they might actually reduce the amount carbon in the atmosphere that could go on to form greenhouse gases and  contribute to global warming. Then again, the short-term picture is a bit foggier. With every new coccolith comes the creation of a CO2 molecule – the plant sucks back in most of the gas as food, but some of it does escape into the atmosphere. (By the way, don't quote me on the exact science of any of this ... I'm attempting to distill information with my painfully clumsy brain).

As with all life, coccolithophores are complicated and we don't understand the big picture yet. They have their good points and bad points, just like the rest of us.

They're really beautiful on a micro level. Here's one through an electron microscope:

Photo courtesy of Public Library of Science Journal

I was thinking about coccolithophores and respiration while walking the dog today and listening to Krista Tippett's interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli. Trying to draw connections between my experience and the world at large (and small I guess).

In the interview Rovelli discussed many fascinating things – among them, the meaning of time: 

"It’s not either there is time, or there’s not time; it’s what we mean by time. When we think about time, for instance, we think time is the same for everybody, and we know it’s not true. Time passes a little bit faster in the mountain, and a little bit slower near the sea. The more high you go, the more time passes fast. So it’s relative to how we move, where we are, and so on. I think that, in the fundamental equation of the world, as we have understood so far, we can forget about time. 
They’re not about how things evolve in time. It is about relations between — with invariables. I think that’s more or less we can understand. The real problem is, from there, to come back, and in this timeless world, to understand what is this thing that we experience as time. And that’s a problem in thermodynamics, and also, I think this probably is related to what we are as human beings. To a large extent, what we call time is our memory, our anticipation. I think we’re going to understand entirely what time is when we better understand what we are. So I think that time is an approximate thing, not a fundamental thing in the world. Like up and down. Up and down makes sense here on Earth, but not in space."
He went on later:
"We perceive reality not from the outside, but from the inside. And there is this little difference between each one of us, obviously. And we have to keep this into account."
This stuck out to me. The way we perceive reality.

See, we assume because we know what it's like to be ourselves, that we know what it's like to be a human in general.That we can look at another person and know them and understand them on a certain level just by virtue of the fact that they're also a human. But really, it's relative, right? Even for identical twins – conceived and borne from the same place, their experiences aren't exact. Not quite. So our experience in this life is just our own. Our partner's experience is his own. Our children's experiences are their own. 

So then, I think, it's essential that we stay curious. Stay curious about each other. Even the people we are closest with. Even with the people with think we know everything about. Stay curious like children. Stay curious about the world because our curiosity not only builds understanding, it creates joy. Like the little boy toddling along the sidewalk who, at the sight of Snacks, began giggling and pointing. Who spun his head around and grinned as we passed, hoping to watch more of this wonderful thing called doggy.

It will break your heart open.

My lichen specimen.

You'll start marveling at the world you've always thought you knew. Even in the mundanity of your own neighborhood, another patch in the endless quilt of suburban sprawl. You'll spot lichen flowering on a stick and marvel at how delicate and beautiful it is. Which makes you want to learn more about what lichen is, exactly. Where you'll learn that it's actually the result of two symbiotic organisms: a fungus and algae existing because of each other. The alga photosynthesizes food, providing nutrients for the lichen, the lichen offers a safe place for alga to be – protecting it from ultraviolet rays.

You'll look down, where your eyes will open to spring bursting around you – the emerald moss and the rain sparkling on greening grasses soaking in the sun and thaw.

And you'll look up to watch the birds.

As I headed home from my walk, I saw a flock of geese flying over head. An undulating "V" in the sky. I thought about how lucky it must be for the geese at the ends of the two legs of the "V". Long distance flying must be so easy when you're catching the draft from all the others up ahead. How tiring it must be for the ones at the front. Carrying the load of air resistance over miles and miles. 

The sky was a downy gray, and their movement felt like a dance just for me, so I stopped to watch them. I observed the geese periodically shifting positions. Sometimes the "V" became an "A". It occurred to me that maybe the goose at the front wasn't always the goose at the front. That the constant switching toward the front of the flock was to give the leaders a break.

When I got home, I did some Googling – and found this from the L.A. Times: Birds Flying in a V Take Turns in the Top Spot, Study Finds. Researches tracked flocks of Northern bald ibises and found that when flying long distances, there was no one bird that took the front spot for long periods of time; instead, they'd spend seconds or a minute in that position, before rotating with neighbors.

“All the birds contribute almost equally to the investment in leading the flock,” biologist Bernhard Voelkl said.

Watching the birds made me think about how dependent we are on each other. Like lichens. Like our dependence on this microscopic ocean creatures for breath. 

And how we're stronger when we work together. And how it's too wearying for any one of us to lead the flock for long periods of time. We each have to take our turn, then we each have to move aside for the next leader. 

As tumultuous as life feels in our country, in our world right now, it's hard not to feel as if we have to race to the front of the flock to take a stand – to be the tip of the spear of progress and change. I don't know about you, but I'm not so sure I have a clear picture about what I'd do up there in the front. Not yet anyway. But I think I'll know when it's my turn to take the lead. And in the meantime, the birds in the middle are no less critical. They provide draft for those behind them. And those birds help the ones behind them. We all carry each other that way. 

What does any of this have to do with the other thing? What does lying awake at night have to do with phytoplankton? What does phytoplankton have to do with relativity? What does lichen have to do with bird formations? Maybe nothing more than a jumbled compilation of the things that catch my attention in a day. You know how I love attempting to weave discordant things together into neat little packages. Hoping to find harmony where maybe there is none to be found. 

Maybe the only common thread is me and the next shiny thing.  

But maybe not. 

Maybe it's that we're better together. We're better as a species when we collaborate. Maybe it's that we really need each other to survive. And not only each other, but the other living things that surround us – even the tiniest organisms. The planet is this living, breathing thing that shapes us as we shape it. Symbiosis is beautiful. And we needn't feel so small and powerless in this vast universe. We all play a role. Even when we don't know what it is.

Maybe the thread is just to be curious. To observe the world around you. To be open to the lessons it's trying to teach you. Our daily existence as the classroom for the very meaning of who we are and why we are here.

Those answers that are so complex they require a lifetime to digest. The ones that you get when you come back to your breath. 

The answers to the things that keep you awake at night. 

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