The best two classes I took in college were The Taxonomy of Flowering Plants, and Linguistics 101. They are not dissimilar in the gifts they have continued to give through my entire life since. They both gave me a way of seeing past the surfaces we take for granted, to look closely, toward much more intimate and miraculous movements: roots, growth, stems, competition, survival, fertility, change.
For the taxonomy course we had to buy a little magnifying folding monocle for viewing plants, and especially flowers, up close. It cost a great deal for a poor college student. It might have been $24 or it might have been $54, I can’t remember except that there was a 4. I only remember that detail due to shock – besides my books it was the most expensive thing I owned.
But the investment paid off the very first time I peered through it, hanging around my neck from a leather cord, and saw a flower up close for the first time. A whole new world opened up, invisible to the naked eye. There were new buds piercing the surface of twigs, petioles unfolding from around petals, pollen balanced delicately on the tip of a stamen, the fiber of phloem, the angular structure of the cells of a leaf. I was overbowled. I wore that monocle everywhere for more than a year after that.
I still have it stashed away somewhere in a cigar box, as a reminder of all that we cannot see or even imagine at work around us. If only we could look at it closely enough, even a plain cement wall explodes into a million worlds. Snow, sand, our own skin – all of it is full of ecosystems playing out, invisible to us but for the aid of a microscope, just as we are invisible compared to the expanse of galaxies around us.
It seems that, for all practical purposes, the fractal pattern goes both ways. The physical universe is infinite in both directions, and we live our lives on a mere thread within a thread.
My eyes are too old now to be able to see the world through that monocle without more lenses in between. I can barely see the controls on this new camera. But once I flash the images onto the computer screen, that other world opens up again, magnified and just as magnificent as it was the first time I saw it in college, with secret folds, hairy filaments, flaming color and dewey, tender textures.
Lately I’d rather look at the world through the microscope setting on the camera than to look at it any other way. I think I am most excited when I discover that something which appears dead is actually not just alive, but growing, and often supporting other lives, too. That seems like a great gift this particular spring.
I called this series The Sexual World because that’s what flowers are – sex organs. It’s uncanny that we find them so irresistable, as they don’t have much to do with our own survival, not directly anyway. They are intended for insects, mostly, and it’s an accident of nature that we can see even half of the spectrum of their vibrant colors.
But they are supremely attractive to us, to a great many creatures for their various reasons, it seems, from our chickens to bees to butterflies to children.
These photos are an up-close tour of our yard in the middle of March. With this new device, I look forward to looking at it more closely from now on, in every month. You will be finding some of those photos here as well, as the season continues.