By John Palka — Posted January 10, 2016
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 had set out on a solo hike that took me from the valley bottom up several thousand feet to a ridgetop well above timberline. The trail was good, but it followed endless switchbacks up and up the steep slope and was, frankly, rather monotonous. My mind started to wander. On other hikes on other days it might have gone in any direction—the myriad tasks and stresses of building a career as a young university professor, the latest drama in our family, my hobby of photography—but on this particular day it took an unexpected turn. I started musing about genes.
Now musing about genes—not solving genetic puzzles or trying to recall the details of the latest experiment, but musing—that is an unusual activity even for a biologist. I don’t remember how it started, I don’t remember most of my fragmentary thoughts, but I do remember with startling vividness the moment when something internal happened that transformed my intellectual understanding into a felt experience.
The understanding which I was discussing with myself as I walked is that I share many genes with the trees all around me. The form and physiology of a tree are vastly different from my own, but we share a number of life processes. Like the cells of my own body, the cells of the trees carry out respiration, move ions across their membranes, replicate DNA, and synthesize proteins. These processes are basically the same in me and in the trees, carried out by much the same molecules, and therefore the genes that encode these molecules must be closely similar.
How, despite our obvious differences, had the trees and I come to share so much? Because we had common ancestors, albeit many eons ago. I was walking among very distant cousins, far older and larger than I, rooted in place, directly capturing the sun’s energy while I have to eat to survive, but cousins nevertheless, my biological kin. At that point my mind stopped talking to itself, and for a few moments I was left with a wordless understanding that was of a different kind than the understanding born of intellectual discourse. I was grasping an essential truth that was based on familiar science, 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.
I took my solo hike through the Cascades over forty years ago, and much in my life has changed since then. Hiking is not so easy any more. I retired from the University of Washington over a decade ago. More than a few anniversaries have passed since Yvonne and I celebrated fifty years of marriage, and instead of ten-year-old children we now have grandchildren graduating from college. My felt sense of a familial relationship with the trees, however, and with the whole web of life, and through living things with the whole of the cosmos, is still with me.
For me this is a gift that sprang from intensive scientific training and an active pursuit of science. There are other routes by which people with other passions have reached a similar sense of relatedness with the world around them, but for me the route has been science. Through Nature’s Depths I am trying to share some of the beauties of this route, and to make the route inviting even to readers for whom science is not a mode of understanding and relating that they have cultivated in the past.
I invite you to try this for yourself. Set out on a walk and take any idea that you have come across on Nature’s Depths with you: the diversity of organisms all around you; colors, and how they arise; photosynthesis, and how it powers your own life. Try experiencing the living world all around you through these perspectives, and see whether it doesn’t help you feel more intimately a part of it yourself.