Wandering and life (and death)

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.

Hungry starling

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.

Stellars jay

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.

Country cousin to a rat, but a lot cuter

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?

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24 Responses to Wandering and life (and death)

  1. Rain says:

    Some years back I wrote an article, which I never published but did it to get the thoughts down. It was how communities benefit from both newcomers like pollen and those who have deep roots. I live in such a place where some families came here on wagon trains and some, like us, just landed here. Because I have never had deep roots anywhere, even as I have stayed places sometimes many years, I appreciate those with the deep roots. Both enrich a community with a memory of what is important and new ideas for how to make it better.

    It was 1977 when we moved onto this farm and yet from that time I always thought it might not be permanent or next year we might live elsewhere. It has given me a feeling of freedom probably to think that way. I am here now. I do this now. Tomorrow I might choose otherwise– even though I might not.

    With having one home in Arizona and one here in Oregon, I have a bit of a built-in divided loyalty although as I get older, I am thinking I’d rather have that second home a bit closer. We now face three day drives to get there if we want to take with us things the second home needs.

    On death and dying, I didn’t expect to live past 30– so my awareness of life being fleeting sometimes has always been with me and not in a morbid sense but just that it’s how it is.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks, Rain, for this thoughtful comment. I think new comers do add something, perhaps a lot. But often they produce a paradoxical loss of diversity when they crowd out or out compete with indigenous organisms. But in my post I was trying to analyze rather than judge.

  2. I like your particular arrangement of DNA, by the way.

  3. Annie says:

    Myself, I’m kind of at peace with the “invasive species”. I enjoy the starlings because of their happy twittering, we have birdsong here all winter thanks to them. Critters and weeds find a way of getting around, whether with help from us humans or not. How do all those Pacific islands get their plants? The arrival of one new weed or critter forces everyone else to rearrange themselves and often that means someone else falls off the edge, but it was ever thus. Coyotes are an invasive species here and lots of people are unhappy about that. On the other hand they say (and I think I saw one) that the Eastern Panther is moving into our province and folks are in awe of that. I don’t know if it is an invader or a returnee, but I must say that it was quite thrilling when I thought I saw one trotting down the road.

    • Anne says:

      Coyotes help to keep rats in line, so I too an favorably disposed to them. But it is a bit scary to be stalked by a coyote, as I have been a couple of times when walking my small white mutt dog — may he rest in peace.

      But I bet nobody is going to speak up for rats!

  4. Hattie says:

    I am interested in the bird species that manage to hang on in spite of human invasion. Crows and seagulls are my favorites.

  5. I am fascinated by the continuum of life. Which of course includes death. We are privileged and see six or seven native species of birds each day, but we also see a few who have been introduced. And I am an introduced species in my country of birth with one parent from England and the other from Germany. I hope that I add value, but will probably never know.
    Thank you for this thought provoking post. And I am with Murr about the beauty of your DNA. Mine stops with me.

    • Anne says:

      Striving to add value to this beautiful world is the main thing, perhaps the only thing, that really matters, isn’t it?

  6. Mage Bailey says:

    This is a wonderful essay in context of your own life. Thank you.

  7. jt says:

    You must read Arthur Schoepenhauer.

    • Anne says:

      On the contrary, my ideas are quite unlike Schoepenhauer’s. I am much more in the “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” mode than trying to subjugate desire to will.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    A reflective and inspiring post, Anne. My thoughts often circle around death too, but not in the morbid sense. Life just simply fascinates me, particularly evolution and life on other planets.
    I am a blow-in to my community. And we all learn from each other.

  9. I’m reading this just a short time after learning a friend of mine died quite suddenly and unexpectedly. As much as we know death can come at any time – this news has left me reeling.
    She was young (in her forties), in good health, fit …

    They found her body at a park. She was sitting under a tree, leaning against it, with a lunch she’d brought sitting next to her.

    Just like that – gone.

    I suppose we will learn soon if it was a heart attack, an aneurysm .. or what might have caused her death.

    The individual is nothing – and yet, at the same time – the impact of one individual can be huge.

  10. Being outside in the sunshine, or the drizzle, for that matter, always makes me quit thinking, and that is a good thing when you’ve spent most of your life reading and teaching.

    I try not to think about death too much, except perhaps in my dreams, because I’ve already become much too familiar with it.

    I take solace in the concept that we aren’t just a single being but are, rather, a web of relationships that will continue long after we’re gone, whether through the genes we pass on or through the effect we have had on others.

  11. Freda says:

    The whole idea of our molecules/DNA becoming part of another living thing is fascinating. But you are the first person I have found who explains it so well. Btw I love the photos of the birds at the feeder.

  12. Deborah says:

    Thank you, Anne for mentioning my post. Ever since Sophie’s disappearance I have wondered whether wandering is an ancient instinct, or a response to the search for a lost self.
    I’ve just been trying to put my hands on a book I read a few years ago about a phenomenon that appeared in France during the early part of the last century (I think) – the wanderers, or ‘fugueurs’. People, mostly men, who left their homes and wandered, sometimes disappearing for many months without trace, and when found, often had no memory of where they had been or come from. Couldn’t find the book but Google provided me with the name – ‘Mad Travelers’ by Ian Hacking.
    It was seen as a mental illness, but the odd thing was that it appeared and died out within a period of about twenty years. The book is as much about how mental illness is diagnosed and how human behaviours are pathologized, but the link with the wanderings of people striken with dementia is interesting.

    This was such an interesting and educative post – I do enjoy the discoveries I made here, and like Murr, I like the arrangement of your DNA.

  13. Darlene says:

    Your Photos are spectacular, Anne. Thanks for your thoughtful and well researched essay. There is much to think about.

  14. Pauline says:

    I find it fascinating that when I find myself thinking of a particular thing (like death and wandering), suddenly lots of folks around me seem to be thinking (or writing or speaking of) the same thing. I am at that “wandering,” wondering age; what will become of me, where will I go, will I be aware of any of it? My friend J and I joke about being on the 20-year plan, but who knows. It could be 30, it could be 3. I miss me when I think of the world without me. You’ve made me feel better, knowing it won’t be without me entirely, just without my entirety.

  15. Dick says:

    An admirably sanguine post, Anne, reflective and detached. All too easy to place ageing
    self at the centre of the inevitable contemplations of life’s great cycle.

  16. What an incredible and incredibly lovely post, Anne. We’re such slight, fleeting things — all of us and our cares and our needs and our desires.

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