Monday, June 29, 2020

Active Nature Observers

Continuing the topic of nature networking, we dive into a discussion of the inspiration provided by events in our own yard. We have just passed the summer solstice, the annual date when the sun rises to the highest point in its trek across our northern hemisphere heavens. Apart from a fascinating astronomical explanation for this solar phenomenon, we automatically connect this northern hemisphere summer solstice occurrence with warmth, long days, short nights, and a healthy burst of renewal of both plant and animal life. Many uniquely fascinating, curious behaviors of our energized warm season residents become apparent. We hone our observational and research skills for maximal enjoyment.

Recently I became aware of an old expression with which I was unfamiliar—belly botany. Here is a literal and somewhat extreme definition: Close, unhurried exploration of nature, including tiny insects best observed while looking up close, even positioned on your belly, perhaps with a powerful magnifying glass. More generally, the term applies to an intense study of our environment using finely developed observational skills. The term originated with Walt Disney (1901-1966) who used the term to describe how close observation in his hometown state of Missouri as a child inspired his source of creativity and inspiration even as a young person. We repeat our previous post’s reference to the instructional qualities provided by living things and the earth itself in the 12th chapter of Job. We learn characteristics of the Creator and Author of All Things with a careful study of the world of nature.

We clarify: Belly botany is an intensive study of the natural world, using not only powers of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, but extending research activity to provide fuller discovery. Research takes many forms, such as studying the physical, chemical, and neurological basis for traits manifest by our local animal and plant life. Knowledge becomes fuller as we study startling intrinsic behavioral and functional capabilities of neighborhood animals.

Our home is located in mid-latitudes of upper Midwest US, between the tropics and 60 degrees N. latitude. We discover truth about the Creator’s intelligent design handiwork by carefully observing and contemplating living creatures. We have mentally catalogued several unusual behaviors of local wildlife in our spring 2020, editing our lengthy list to include the most interesting events.

Eastern grey squirrels, native to North America, provide entertainment as they chase each other and vault through the tall black walnut, cedar, and wild cherry trees. Some forays are obviously related to food searches. Other purposes for their acrobatic antics may relate to mating rituals. Many times our squirrels’ behavior manifests no purpose apart from self-entertainment and pure explorational joy. They innately plan creative moves and account for their own bodily motion with nary an accident in trees over 50 feet tall. They must consider not only their own motion but also the motion of branches bending with their own weight as they launch. This morning I noticed a “first” on our back deck. Our deck umbrella is 6-8 feet off the ground and located an equal distance from any horizontal structure. One squirrel made it to the top of our large umbrella with process skills still unknown to this observer. Later he temporarily seemed at a loss to find his way down. He finally solved the problem by leaping off safely. Many YouTubes document incredible problem solving feats of these animals.

Also current as I write are profuse swarms of butterflies of the species empress flora and closely related species identified according to the National Audubon Society Field Guide of North American Butterflies. Recently four different specimens alighted on my body all at once. I observed their tightly coiled proboscis which uncoiled to act as a straw. Butterflies drink nectar from flowers because butterflies do not eat; they only drink their food. In their close visit with me on my front porch the butterflies manifested “puddling”—feeding from moist ground or dry surfaces. They acquire nutrient minerals such as sodium for their physiological processes. These butterflies swarmed in groups, following each other at close range and high speed. Large swarms of birds manifest identical traits—the ability to change speed and direction en masse in a tiny microsecond of time. This ability far exceeds athletic reaction time capabilities of our most gifted human athletes.

In the past few weeks a well-known exceptional example of insect behavior has been reported in local publications. The 17-year cicada possesses ability far more remarkable than the ordinary suite of insect behavior. In 2007 we heard a chorus of 17-year cicadas producing a sonorous din in our nearby woods. Adult cicadas of that brood later produced tiny eggs which today are in the process of tunneling under the ground for 17 years (exactly 17 years) feeding on root sap as their nymphal stages slowly mature. Then, in quantities of billions, the larvae will break out of their underground lair in 2024 and ascend to upper plant branches to sing their mating call for a few days. The last few weeks we have been serenaded by a few periodic cicadas. But 2020 is four years early! Several articles claim these are 17 year cicada “stragglers,” a curious exception to the 17-year cicada’s usual behavior. Similar cicada species tunnel for exactly 13 years. Their timing is precise but their behavior is essentially unexplained as are numerous wonders in God’s created world of living things.

We introduce another personal neighborhood tale with a brief sidebar. Several years ago our family assembled in Georgia for a reunion. One night after dark our grandson informed the group about noisy frogs singing outside. Only two reunion attendees went outside to investigate—grandfather and grandson. We were treated to the unique songs of dozens of gray tree frogs just a few steps outside, visible to us only via flashlight. A few weeks ago we were visited by a single gray tree frog, a first time visitor to our home in extreme northwest Illinois, 900 miles north of Georgia. We initially took note of his presence as he sang to us in the middle of the night. Over the next two weeks the amphibian shared his mating call during the day from shrubs in front of our house; at other times he loudly called from inside our covered back deck gas grill. Once I was privileged to spot him crawling on the deck after dark. He departed soon, apparently in search of liquid water pools. We considered his visits an unusual gift from the storehouse of plentiful natural wonders.

We cite a few other natural wonders of spring just passed. Wild turkeys enjoy dust baths, part of their preening and plumage maintenance. They also enjoy “de-dusting” on our concrete front stoop, leaving behind turkey footprints for humorous effect. A partially white crow, an example of leucism, made visits on two occasions. Two buck deer crossed our front yard with velvet still visible on their antlers. Before they forcibly remove this velvet antler coat in August or September, blood vessels within the velvet supply antlers with minerals to promote healthy bone growth and structure. When we spotted these bucks recently, their antlers were prominent but not yet close to fully grown. These examples of physiological processes are but a few of thousands of divine design phenomena in the world of living things.

Leaf-out this spring was slightly late in our deciduous forest, but ultimately more luxuriant than usual. Optical study of the wondrous growth and development of plants in spring may be satisfying for the “belly botanists” described in our post’s opening paragraphs.

Belly botanists may extend their skills to active astronomical observation. During the spring a beautiful long term appearance of Planet Venus in western skies continued. Since late 2019 it was a beautiful “evening star.” Astronomical forecasters had warned us Venus would take a rapid dive out of the evening sky in late May to a position in the glare of the apparent sun only to reappear in the morning sky and remain visible there until early 2021. As of June Venus became a “morning star.” The nearby planet is often called “Earth’s twin” because it is almost the same size as Earth. 

We would do well to learn about the God of Creation as active observers of nature—both its living and non-living realms. We do not worship the creation, however. We worship the God of Creation.

Thank you, readers, for permitting your blogger to share natural highlights from our personal neighborhood…..






Thursday, June 18, 2020

Networking with Nature

In modern parlance, networking signifies making contact and exchanging information. Usually it relates to interactions with other people, groups, or things. We refer to social networking with a nod to technology unheard of just a few years ago. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have their origins in the first decade of our current century. Modern residents have forfeited many of the benefits of personal, face-to-face interactions. They have also reduced the inspiration available from observing the natural world.

In the 21st century many residents employ the relationships provided by social media in place of the experiences provided by our rich natural environment. The recent coronavirus pandemic has necessitated reliance on social networking in the fields of employment, education, and personal contact. Social scientists and educators have expressed concern about possible overuse of electronic networking while neglecting the knowledge and inspiration supplied by our God-created natural, physical world.

Consider the words of the Old Testament biblical figure Job: 

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10 NIV)

In what respect are the animals able to teach us? Or what may we learn from observing the characteristics of the non-living physical world? Periodically Job injects the overwhelming importance of natural wisdom God has infused within not only living things, but also in the characteristics of the earth itself. Citations of the natural world, recurring frequently in this Old Testament book of wisdom, are worth considering for more than merely reminders of earth’s esthetic beauty. We consider references to the natural world a significant reminder of the characteristics of the Creator Himself.

By observing animals, we are enabled to learn engineering skills, optimum hunting strategies, methods of food procurement or storage, implementation of defensive or protective strategies, as well as optimum use of their individual physical endowments such as running, climbing, eating, and a host of other skills. In terms of observing the non-living physical world, we might learn about multiple physical constants/laws and their orderliness, predictability, and constancy.

Networking with nature? Compared with social networking now an adjunct of our modern society, we posit that old-fashioned nature awareness is undervalued in our day. We do not disparage all forms of social networking. The advantages of FaceTime, Zoom technology, and others flourishing in the last decade, are a boon to grandparents living at a distance and to many other legitimate users. The problem surrounding these technologies relates to how many grip our societies at warp speed before we assess their long term potentials, impacts, benefits, or dangers.

In the lives of my parents and grandparents, there were still ample opportunities to network with nature. This sort of networking was easily accessible. My four grandparents were farmers living in the last few decades of the 19th century. We muse how natural networking drew them closer to the Creator—awareness of nature  described in Job 12. Current social networking was largely non-existent in their day.    Letters, post-cards, and primitive telephones were early whispers of social networking. Both types of relationships involve exchanging information to enhance knowledge. 

Physical scientists describe how the electromagnetic spectrum in concert with digital technology enable modern residents to network socially. Physical scientists teach the power of physical constants and physical laws which describe an orderly, predictable universe. Life scientists describe the wonders of animal intelligence, behavior, and function. Both groups of scientists are able to access truths of general revelation. Theological truth is given to humanity by general revelation, by which we become aware of wonders of the natural world, and by special revelation, the revealed written WORD of God by which we are instructed concerning the nature of the Creator.    



Saturday, June 6, 2020

By the Numbers

“By the numbers” is a well-known modern idiom. Its use suggests doing things in a strict, exact, formulaic way. However, there is no literal meaning of numbers in a mathematical sense when we do things “by the numbers.”

If we apply the expression more literally, we have many opportunities to study our world in terms of numbers. Describing quantities according to numbers is a necessary requirement in the field of marketing. We purchase substances according to numbers of grams, pounds, or milliliters, quantities of eggs (by the dozen), copy paper by the ream (500 sheets), or ears of sweet corn for our community picnic (we’ll take 100). In these contexts, we are interested in number precision.

In the world of nature we encounter many incredible, stupendously large numbers. For example, in relation to the number of atoms in a single body cell, we are dealing with 100 trillion. That number matches an estimate for the number of cells in the human body—100 trillion. Scientists’ approximations of the number of molecules in a typical snowflake vary with the calculating skills of individual estimators. Several have put the number at 180 billion. Others offer much larger numbers. 

There are many other mind boggling numbers related to tiny entities in our environment. Bacteria are gigantic compared with atoms and molecules, but are still beneath our ability to see without a light microscope. Our body is inhabited by 1000 or more bacterial species. The total number of bacteria in and on the human body roughly approximates the total number of bodily human cells. That number fluctuates, depending on new research findings. Recently the number of human body cells has been lowered to 37.2 trillion. Viruses are considerably tinier than bacteria. They exist in and on the human body and are up to 10 times more numerous than bacteria. Bacterial and viral communities are collectively called the microbiome, also including fungi and protozoa. Truly, we live in a microbe world.

What about the microbiome? Even if we are not interested in statistics, we cannot help but be impressed “by the numbers.” Upon searching for definitions and commentaries on the microbiome, we uncovered this Wikipedia definition: “The microorganisms in a particular environment (including the body or a part of the body). The Wikipedia entry continues, “We depend on a vast army of microbes to stay alive: a microbiome that protects us against germs, breaks down food to release energy, and produce vitamins.” The Earth’s microbiome is but a tiny segment of the totality of God’s work in creation. We may be forgiven for wondering why so many viruses and bacteria even exist, especially in view of the deleterious effects of several hundred well known harmful pathogenic agents.  

The creative ability of God in the production of our physical cosmos is far beyond our ability to comprehend. The intricate designs of life forms is controlled and enabled by the features of the genetic material, DNA, with its esthetic beauty. DNA codes for millions of diverse life forms. Our grasp of “the numbers” involved in describing or cataloguing the billions of physical entities comprising our created cosmos is merely the beginning of scientific understanding. Knowing how the “numbers” contribute to a beneficial ‘working order’ for the good of humanity is a challenge even for the most advanced science specialists.

Another example may illustrate the benefit of huge numbers. Some theological skeptics have proposed that the Creator was wasteful in producing up to two trillion galaxies in our universe, each containing billions of stars, especially if humans inhabiting the Solar System are unique in our vast universe. On its face, this argument may seem valid. We close with an example involving incredible numbers—the trillions of galaxies, stars, and planets in our cosmos…..

In the past few decades cosmologists have discovered previously unknown truths about how our universe functions with its trillions of galaxies, stars, and planets. About a century ago Big Bang cosmology became prominent. Astrophysicist Albert Einstein felt that the gravitational attraction of universal matter might eventually result in a “Big Crunch” where the universe would collapse on itself—a decelerating universe. Several decades ago a surprising discovery was made. Astronomers announced that the universe was, instead, expanding due to the presence of a mysterious dark energy. Below we quote from our 12-21-11 post:

“It now appears the precision required for life sustaining expansion is even greater than in the former decelerating universe. The term precision acquires new meaning in this context. The precision required is exponentially greater than for any physical system that man has ever devised. Had the expansion rate been slightly greater no planets, stars or galaxies could have formed at the right times and places. The universe would contain only diffuse gas and dust. This scenario would have resulted in too little mass density. On the other hand had the expansion rate been slightly less only life destroying giant stars and black holes would have formed because too much mass was present. Someone may ask, How much extra mass is too much or too little?” The answer: Less than the mass of a single dime in the entire universe.”

We do not pretend that the above example proves any specific point about “the numbers” of atoms, molecules, bacteria, or viruses in our current world. At a minimum it conveys the amazing truth that even one dime’s worth of mass is significant in the proper functioning of our entire physical system. This includes the mass of uncounted trillions of stars and galaxies.

Our created universe operates under the sustaining power of God. He is the Creator (Genesis 1:1) and He is the sustainer (Colossians 1:17). Every entity exists at His command and for His purpose.