Recently Deborah wrote a sad and poignant post about a friend who had Alzheimers and wandered off, got lost and died of exposure. That made me think about wandering and I frequently think about death anyway. Forgive me if I continue on my rumination on life and death. The suicide of Jerry’s brother Bert and the fact that both Jerry and I turn 80 this year is the reason that I continue this reflection. I used to be a biologist, and I still think like a biologist. I think of wandering as a biological urge built into our DNA. Death is, of course, part of the chain of life.
When life first formed sometime around 350 billion years ago it spread rapidly through the seas, and when land stabilized it eventually colonized the land. And it diversified. It experimented with new forms. Some were so successful that they survive today, but all life is a continuum. We are all derived from the first life that formed on this planet. There was constant change and movement. I see the need to wander in myself when I walk in a new place. I must see what is around the next bend and I often walk farther than is comfortable on the return. I much prefer a circuit walk to a go and come back the same way walk.
Jerry and I have been watching a series of lectures on colonial America, how Europeans wandered across the ocean to find new worlds.
Ecosystems come into balance when they are undisturbed for long enough. When new kinds of plants or animals (including people) arrive in a stable ecosystem the balance is upset and things change. Eventually a new balance is established, but it takes time and there is conflict as it equilibrates. When the first Europeans came to the new world the native communities were in balance. It’s true that different native peoples fought each other. For instance, it was part of the Iroquois culture to fight, but it is said that if they fought for 7 years 7 people would be killed. They didn’t fight to gain land or dominate other tribes. They fought to prove their strength and courage and sometimes to capture women and children to add new blood to their tribes. When white people arrived wars took on a different purpose: that of acquiring land and killing the former inhabitants. And biology had another way as well. New diseases were introduced which decimated the native populations.
Nor were the white people, newly arrived, in equilibrium with each other. Different cultures and religions existed in the several colonies. They fought with each other and with the natives. The Puritans who settled New England formed alliances with some Indian tribes against the French, and later against other English settlers who had different religious beliefs. They quarreled with the Dutch in New Netherlands (New York) and with colonists in Virginia where an unstable social structure had arisen through settlement by importation of indentured servants. Colonists would bring servants, indentured for 7 years, to Virginia. For this they would get 40 acres of land for each imported servant granted by the British Crown. Servants who survived the 7 years would be freed and given 40 acres. Conditions were terrible, so usually the servants would die after a couple of years and the sponsor would then get the servants’ 40 acres as well as his own. In this way vast holdings of land along the rivers were amassed by rich owners. Gradually, though, conditions improved and the servants began to survive their 7 years. But by this time the best land near the rivers was already claimed, so the servants were given outlying land where they came into conflict with native people who considered the land theirs.
Animal communities work in similar ways. I am plagued by starlings at my bird feeders.
They don’t belong here; they came from Asia. In 1890 about 100 of them were released in Central Park in New York by a man who wanted to bring every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to the United States. Today there are more than 200 million starlings in this country. They displace native species of birds.
Occasionally I see a rat under the feeder, picking up what the birds spill. Rats have wandered the world over in company with humans. They live and prosper in the dark nooks and crannies of cities and towns. Their insect fellow travelers carry their own guests who are home in turn to bacteria that bring death to humans. In the 14th century the black death took the lives of half the population of Europe. It started in China and followed the silk road, then the black rats that carried the fleas took up a sailor’s life on trading ships and the plague spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.
In my garden I pull up plants that have invaded from other continents, sometimes drifting here on the wind, the water or brought by wandering birds. Life wanders. Darwin traveled around the world and observed plants and animals everywhere he went. He saw that the fittest survived to reproductive age. And the fittest wander.And the successful wanderers survive.
Europe survived the plague. People, rats, and Yersinia pestis are in equilibrium for the present. The American colonies have become the United States, a relatively peaceful place. The native people who survived the measles have developed immunity. Many people live to be in their 80′s. I will learn to live with starlings. I will learn to live with dandelions in my lawn because I won’t put weed killer on the grass. I will root them out of my flower beds.
But the point is that when it comes to DNA and the web of life, the individual is nothing. Life spreads itself in what ever way it can, wandering the entire planet, learning to survive in every kind of place. If a sparrow falls, nobody cares, except perhaps its mate. When I die those who love me will be sad, but my DNA has already moved on and now resides in quite a number of other humans. I did my part. I housed a certain arrangement of DNA molecules for more than 80 years. Now that arrangement is wandering around, getting mixed with other molecular arrangements. That’s what DNA does and has been doing since the beginning of life. That’s what it will do till the end of this planet.
Who knows whether life will come again?