In the mid-1970s I had a remarkable experience while walking in ancient forests on the west side of the Cascade Mountains of Washington. . . I was grasping an essential truth that was based on familiar science (relating to genes), but the nature of the grasping had a quality that I was not able to put into words, and that, even if I could, a scientific journal would probably never allow to be published on its pages.
Without the green of the forests and the fields, and also of the plankton floating in the upper layers of the oceans, the lives of the Earth’s animals, including our lives as human beings, would not be possible. Where does all this magical green come from? It comes from the presence of the pigment chlorophyll in the cells of the leaves and whatever other parts of a plant are green.
Suppose we take a walk in the springtime woods. In the wettest places, the green leaves of the spectacular swamp lanterns blend in well with the surrounding plants, including the mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms we met in a previous post. In contrast, the flowering heads—the lanterns—seem to truly glow a brilliant yellow. Why are the two parts of a single plant so different from one another?
The plants on Yellow Island, situated in the northwestern corner of Washington State, glow with literally all the colors of the rainbow, from blue, through green and yellow, and on to orange and red. They call out a question that scientists and philosophers have asked literally for centuries—how do leaves and flowers come to have the colors they do? Indeed, why are objects of any kind seen by us as having distinguishable colors?
To enter a forest is to enter a world teeming with life, displaying, in Darwin’s words, forms most beautiful and most wonderful. Let us take a journey into the forest, look for some of these forms, and allow ourselves to wonder at their beauty and diversity.
To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature… I hope that the words and pictures that you will find on these posts will convey some of the joy and exhilaration that I have found on my own quest to peer beneath the surface of the natural world.