Thinking Small

I have taken a vow to bury my head, not in the sand, but in pond scum and similarly invertebrate-rich substrates for the remainder of this political cycle. I am abetted in this determination to look elsewhere than “the news” by a new tool: a compound (think biology lab from high school) microscope.

I’ve had it less that two weeks and have only begun to explore: tree bark and lichens; common mosses; branch and creek sediments; leaf litter; and garden grass clippings and top soil.

In all cases, the items, if not aqueous already, are placed in a small stacking dish of rain water and allowed to sit for a day or so, so that the invertebrates invisible to the naked eye should ex-cyst or leave dormancy or otherwise become active in that single drop places on a microscope slide and under a cover slip.

And herein, a window to another world–one so familiar from a long life in the biological sciences that started in 1966. But this is the first time in three decades to see once more my old friends–rotifers, nematodes, various protozoans (a term no longer in use since my ancient education) and algae.

And I shouldn’t fail to mention the tardigrades or water bears. Another great name for them is “moss piglet.” What a kick! Not long ago, they went into space and came back, none the worse for exposure to the ultra-cold and bombarded by solar and cosmic radiation. My heroes.

Invertebrate Astronauts Make Space History | WIRED

So I am a pig in mud–or rather a biologist in pond scum.

And as it turns out, I had been working on a book chapter that celebrates the scale of things in time and space–living creatures, a human life, the quantum and the cosmic. So this reunion with water bears could not have come at a better time!

I’ll be back with you shortly, after a period of radio silence, on  a quest to find some other old friends: amoebas, gastrotrichs and euglenoids.

Yeah. I know.

And, by the way, when I took my first college biology classes, there were only two kingdoms and all the groups pictured here (the Archaea [ in red ] were not even KNOWN then) fit into one of these two nice, neat cubby holes.

Those were simpler times, children.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Did we really classify everything as either a plant or an animal? Not even a bacteria kingdom? When I taught Life Science to 7th graders from 1994 to 2003 I realized the Fungi Kingdom was new. I got my BS in 1964, so I definitely had forgotten a lot from my education when I began teaching 30 years later!