Tuesday, October 02, 2007



Edward O. Wilson is not what most people would call a conventionally religious man. In his autobiography Naturalist, chapter 10 (The South Pacific), he utters an extraordinary prayer:
Take me, Lord, to an unexplored planet teeming with new life forms. Put me at the edge of virgin swampland dotted with hummocks of high ground, let me saunter at my own pace across it and up the nearest mountain ridge, in due course to cross over to the far slope in search of more distant swamps, grasslands, and ranges. Let me be the Carolus Linnaeus of this world, bearing no more than specimen boxes, botanical canister, hand lens, notebooks, but allowed not years but centuries of time. And should I somehow tire of the land, let me embark on the sea in search of new islands and archipelagoes. Let me go alone, at least for a while, and I will report to You and loved ones at intervals and I will publish reports on my discoveries for colleagues. For if it was You who gave me this spirit, then devise the appropriate reward for its virtuous use.
On the last page of his autobiography, in chapter 18 (Biodiversity, Biophilia), Wilson narrows his focus:
Conventional wildernesses of the overland trek may indeed be gone. Most of earth's largest species—mammals, birds, and trees—have been seen and documented. But microwildernesses exist in a handful of soil or aqueous silt collected almost anywhere in the world. They are at least close to a pristine state and still unvisited. Bacteria, protistans, nematodes, mites, and other minute creatures swarm around us, an animate matrix that binds Earth's surface. They are objects of potentially endless study and admiration, if we are willing to sweep our vision down from the world lined by the horizon to include the world an arm's length away. A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.
This reminds me of an oft-repeated anecdote about another Harvard scientist, Louis Agassiz. I haven't been able to trace its origin, but it goes something like this. Asked where he had travelled on his summer vacation, Agassiz replied, "Halfway across my back yard, because there was so much to see."

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