And things were never the same again

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As a writing student I learned that’s a launch point for a successful narrative. But as a kid I wouldn’t have believed it. My favorite stories were the ones that my grandmother told me, and I liked to hear them over and over. I reveled in the detail and the order of narratives I knew well. The way Gam’s dad (my great-Grampa) winked at her when he said that it might be too much to hope for a tricycle for her birthday. And then her birthday came and her present was a set of paper dolls but then her told her to go look outside —with a wink again— and there was the tricycle! It was shiny red and had a big wheel in the front…

Even as I try to re-tell it here, I know that I’m making changes, and I know that my grandmother must have, whether intentionally or not. Nature is writing a new story every day, too. One researcher recently made a breakthrough with a picturesque example: stick bugs. It’s easy to imagine that these insects evolved to closely match the plants in their immediate environments. Those matches are the product of tiny changes, selected over time as the stealthiest bugs survived to reproduce. The surprise here is that the most of the DNA-level changes were different across individuals, even among bugs that basically look the same. The bugs aren’t like a set of paper dolls in which a fixed set of variables are toggled to create different (shrubby) outfits, and randomness plays a big part in the changes take place over generations.

The possible implication of this is that, at least for these bugs, and probably for many other species, the evolutionary journey is unique. (Does this suggest that there isn’t a clear genetic recipe for a particular set of traits, which may be bad news for any hope of restoring lost species, at least for re-creating individuals identical to those that have already disappeared, over multiple generations? See last week’s post.) For me the stick bug discovery complicates the question of what preservation and conservation might mean for the present, and the future. Because in almost all ways—from the most emotional to the most pragmatic—I define the world I want to protect in terms of what I know now. I’m charmed by the cardinal’s fiery up-do, and I expect the tulips to be blooming before my Gam’s birthday in April. The details and the order matter, and for me they are defined by what I can see and hear, here and now.

At the same time, focusing too hard on restoring the particulars of one space, one moment could blind me to what nature does best, which is carry on through such long stretches of space and time with resilience and persistence and spontaneity, through diverted migrations and late frosts. The same is true for the stories. I didn’t and don’t mind whether great-Grampa winked twice, whether the tricycle was really red. What I really valued, wanted to be the same time and again, were the qualities underlying Gam’s stories: the sound of her voice, the vicarious joy and surprise of a child, the tight attention that connects a storyteller and her listener.

The stick bugs, then, offer a two-fold, paradoxical inspiration: Value everything I see now as a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. That cardinal’s crest is as awesome as a comet, even if it flashes by six times a day; a product of a certain kind of magic that is valuable in its own right. At the same time, the study is a reminder that protecting nature requires a wide embrace, with plenty of wiggle room for things to be different now than they were then, or different here than they are there. When did those tulips downtown get planted, anyway? Would Gam have seen them on that tricycle birthday?

Maybe I will tell my granddaughter about the flashy red birds that lived in my backyard. Maybe we’ll see some just like it. Perhaps she’ll grow up with different flocks, and won’t believe such a thing could exist in her part of the world. Probably we’ll both be surprised at what we find, and grateful for the chance to wonder at it.

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