Childlike Puzzlement: Nature's Plethora of Questions
WHY are primroses yellow and bluebells blue? Why do oak leaves have pretty edges?"Our children used to toss such conundrums at us with guileless innocence when they were small. And with their questions would come an expectation of an immediate and categoric answer. "Well," I would reply, groping for inspiration, "don't you think they look rather nice that way?" I was rarely able to give definitive answers. I was a farmer, not a scientist, and I had no idea at all why a primrose was yellow and a bluebell blue. But in retrospect I think the answers born spontaneously contained more of the essence of truth than I was conscious of at the time. Today, with a less urgent lifestyle, I find myself confronted with similar questions, not posed by the children but arising, just as unexpectedly, as I go about my work on the land. Perhaps a hare fleeting from a tussock beneath my feet elicits the question: Why does he use camouflage as a defense while the rabbit relies on his claustrophobic burrow? Or I look up, called by the distant mewing of a buzzard circling over Crofthead Hill and find myself wondering: Why does the buzzard hunt in the full light of day and the owl under cover of darkness? The sight of a fallow deer bounding across treacherous scree on legs as slender as hazel wands sets me off again. Why such speed and fragility? What offense did the moose commit to deserve such oversize antlers and lumbering gait? Why doesn't the swallow need lessons in flying - I've never seen one crash. Why does the oak fight the wind rather than bow to it like the willow? Why does the holly hold on to its leaves right through the winter, while the silver birch disrobes at October's first whispered suggestion? Why does the honeysuckle seduce with its scent and nectar when the heartsease offers only pollen and a pretty face? It doesn't seem to matter in which direction I look. In the garden I see the bees to-ing and fro-ing between flower and hive. Why do they buzz so noisily, fly so fast, sport no fancy costume while the butterfly decadently lilts from flower to flower, flaunting its patterned finery? How is it a spider can design and construct a trap of such complexity when its brain is the size of nothing? Why doesn't it get snared in its own cunning? And over the dike the cows graze on grass sodden with dew. Why don't they get cold and stiff from lying on the wet ground all night? Why does the salmon go to sea and the minnow stay in the stream? Why are ladybugs carnivores and elephants vegetarian? How can an ant lift so many times its own body weight? Of course the scientists have their answers. Darwin's "natural selection" theory conveniently lumped together myriad individual problems and gave his peers a comfortable premise from which to proceed. But "the survival of the fittest" is, for me, too blunt an instrument to answer all the questions. Why, for example, is there such an infinite diversity of species? Wouldn't just a few have done? And there is still the inanimate world with its plethora of questions. We have a loch at the far end of our land, with an island on which a white cherry tree stands. Most of the time the water's surface shows only the tracks of the passing winds, but the instant they go - wherever that may be - film-thin images form on the water's face. The island and the cherry tree, the clouds above, every nuance of mood and hue, are drawn, faster than time can measure. Why was water given the capacity to reflect and w ood and stone only to absorb? How is it that the gales that scream over the hills, tearing at heather and hawthorn, are also able to mold and sculpt the snowdrift into soft pacific shapes? Why aren't the feather-light snowflakes bruised by the storm's anger? Why do crystals take the trouble to build with such symmetry? And when the raindrops fall, why do they linger on twigs and thorns, on buds and blossoms, and grow into scintillating pearls when they could more easily drop directly to the ground? Why do they collaborate with the sun to form a rainbow? How is an arch of such size and grace built so swiftly? Why is green the color of nature, blue the color of space? Why has nature conspired to confuse us by posing questions without answers? Of course there is no conspiracy. Nature does not insist that we find answers. That is our decision. And perhaps it is an indication of our insecurity, or even of our arrogance, that we feel compelled to rationalize those things we do not truly understand. So might it be better if occasionally I were to leave the whys undisturbed beneath their question marks and exult instead in the indisputable fact that "it is so"? After all, if the caterpillar insisted on answers to every why and wherefore of its metamorphosis it might miss the transcending experience of being a butterfly.