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The nature of things (07/06/2008)
By Janet Lewis Burns
My mind has a mind of its own! I've become awash with afterthoughts.

Throughout the past few years, the time when virility and tenacity regress to forgetfulness and incapacity, my senior experiences continue to teach this aging grandma new tricks. The word "virility" isn't normally used to refer to a female, but we are in the 21st century after all! (Live all you can and don't peter out until you must.)

I've come to the era of knowledge seeking (before it's too late.) It seems I've become overzealous for informational input, like it's not enough just to gaze at the things of forest and countryside; I want to learn the names, properties, and species of all living organisms. (Wishing doesn't make it so.) The trouble is, I don't remember most of what I know I've read.

Besides scratching down information for a rough draft, a researcher must enter it into a computer. I type badly - I'm a peeker, but my fingers don't always go where I'm looking. Too stubborn to try a digital camera, (because I don't want to squander brain cells,) my humble collection of nature photographs consists of insignificant lichen scaling tree trunks, little specks I label as butterflies, snaking, gnarled roots of ancient trees, and distant deer, so far away that they can't even pick up a human scent.

An explorer often has to contend with inclement elements. Up at our get-away place in the woods, there's merely a thin, metal wall between rainstorms and us"¦and an even thinner faith. So, as we survive the physical ravages of another tornado season, we sigh and "thank God," while weakness of spirit cowers in shadows of the next storm banking against the horizon. (Human nature is cowardly!)

Nature writer Annie Dillard, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is brilliant and knows everything about all things seen and unusual. We're the same age. (A lot of good that does me!) I guess some of us are just more "broad-minded" than others! She's one of my favorite nature bibles.

There's a fungus among us! It's fortunate for the earth that there's someone as environmentally savvy as biologist Paul Stamens, who has studied the two million

species of fungi in underground networks. Essential for ecological health, the networks inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, transferring nutrients from species with plenty to spare onto others who wouldn't otherwise survive. Are industries paying attention to his warnings that diesel fuel and other toxic compounds are swiftly contaminating these masses of breathing, root-like fibers?

It's not just about the almighty, edible (fungi) mushroom, professionally selected and purchased for succulent stir-fries for dinner. Isn't it extraordinary that, in an era where knowledge about everything seems absolute, that 90% of the 150,000 species of mushrooms have not yet been identified! Please pass the morels! (Excuse me, that's morchella esculenta.)

Rarely does one find a naturalist whose writing is so intriguing that the reader doesn't distinguish between being educated and thoroughly enjoying what they're devouring! That's Annie Dillard. (I'm hoping readers will excuse the Tinker Creek overkill this week.)

From her chapter "Fecundity", Dillard writes, "The experimenters studied a single grass plant, winter rye. They let it grow in a greenhouse for four months; then they gingerly spirited away the soil - under microscopes, I imagine - and counted and measured all the roots and root hairs. In four months the plant had set forth 378 miles of roots - that's about three miles a day - in 14 million distinct roots." "In a single cubic inch of soil, the length of the root hairs totaled 6,000 miles." (I'm speechless!)

They say, "What you read is what you know." Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) offers this advice: "When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish."

"What a little of all we know is said!" That was Emerson. (Wisdom has spoken.)

Janet Burns is a novice environmentalist seeking enlightenment. Please forward your informational input and afterthoughts to: patandjanburns@embarqmail.com. 


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