Science has been developing an increasingly captivating understanding of the natural world and the evolutionary journey of life in recent years; small group of naturalists went to the hills for five days this summer to explore and enjoy nature from this emerging evolutionary perspective. In the idyllic setting of a high alpine cirque we sought out the evidence for life’s long journey through time.
We wanted to include as many dimensions of the experience of learning about our home planet as we could, and so while camping out under open skies and absorbing the poetic license of aspenglow, we also horse-packed in two microscopes (dissecting and compound), binoculars and hand lenses to explore the form and function of the world around. We also pondered the world within, the almost inscrutable mystery of human existence and our relationship to the natural world.
Our days were organized along evolutionary lines, with day one focusing on the geologic story written in the rocks of Copper Glance Basin. Day two was devoted to exploring the lineage of the Plant Kingdom as illustrated by plants on the ground, and exploring the challenges that plants faced in colonizing and prospering on the relatively unfavorable environment of dry land (compared to existence in water). On the third day we began an inquiry into the evolution of animals and the structure of ecosystems by looking into the local lake, ponds and streams to discover—with the help of the microscopes—what the base of the food chain is in these environments. On day four we took on the challenge of finding, observing and learning about the vertebrate animal species in the watershed, from fish and amphibians to birds and mammals. We were greatly entertained by a small troop of pikas that lived in the scree and talus adjacent to camp and watched them for hours.
That life itself is on a journey is obvious, be it the progressive appearance of the plant groups that we found in the forest, from mosses and liverworts to conifers and flowers, or the journey of animals from single-celled to billions of cells, and of vertebrates from the two-chambered heart of fish to four-chambered in birds and mammals (which is related to the increase in oxygen in the atmosphere over time due to photosynthesis).
We raised the question of the place of Homo sapiens in the biosphere; you will be relieved to know we could not fully resolve this conundrum. We were touched by the statement of the Zen Buddhist Kyoto Williams that, “We are not on the Earth, we are of the Earth.” Clearly we must have evolved from the living systems of the biosphere. This fact is echoed in the passage from the famous prose poem Desiderata, where it is written, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” While not able to answer the fundamental questions of human existence, we found that observing and contemplating nature and the evolutionary journey to be an awe-inspiring, even mystical endeavor.