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Focus on Earth
by Artemis
Imbolc 2003, Vol 2-2
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girl child and grandmother on a porch, looking at storm clouds
The Vigil
Copyright © Terry L. H. Brumley
The Power of Nature

Standing like sentinels at our backdoor, Grandma and I kept vigil through almost every Illinois storm in the early 1960's. Poised to make a last-minute dive for our basement's safety, we would scan midnight-blue and purple-gray skies for evidence that clouds were organizing themselves into rotating funnels. Grandma watched because of her tremendous fear of storms. I watched in the hopes of witnessing a full-fledged tornado

Not even in the state of Illinois, close to tornado alley, did we get that lucky. Nor has my luck improved much since Grandma unwittingly turned me on to the excitement of storms. First-hand experience of nature's awesome power seems to elude me somehow, despite my quests for finding it.

Unless we count the touchdown tornado that I drove into during the 1970's. Winds lifted fifty-gallon oil drums out of a gas station and tossed them across the street in front of my car. My Toyota was rocked back and forth like a pressure cooker lid about to explode as the awnings of a nearby restaurant flapped wildly on their hinges. Then all went still and it was over. My companion and I, in the retelling of our adventure, exaggerated our fear and how far those oil drums flew. Sure, we felt the power and the awe, but it was a baby of a storm compared to some I have seen on those cable T.V. tornado shows.

Then there was a visit to the Pacific Ocean in 1963 when I was tumbled head over heels by gigantic salty waves, scraping scalp and then knees on pebble-laden sand. We had contests, my cousins and I, to see who could remain standing in ankle-deep water after each wave hit. The waves knocked us flat on our butts with every try. But then we were only little kids and no match for the force behind each sudden burst of water. Anyway, the forty-foot waves in Hawaii are monsters compared to those fifteen-foot high crests that tossed me like a California salad that playful June day. Unfortunately, I have never been in ankle-deep contests in Hawaii.

grasshoppers on a screen (1936 photo)
Grasshoppers, 1936
Courtesy of NARA

Aside from a few encounters with the wind-and-water kinds of nature power, I have totally missed the boat with most catastrophic natural events. For example, I've never felt the earth quake or a volcano shake. Nor have I been plagued by millions of grasshoppers clawing at my mouth and ears. Didn't Laura Ingalls Wilder describe such events occurring in the Midwest during the 1900s? What happened to those grasshoppers anyway? And what about the 17-year locusts that my mother says were ankle deep on the golf courses as recently as the 1950s? Why is it that after almost fifty years of living, I haven't come across a single one of these biotic dynamisms?

I guess I'm preoccupied with this most unusual form of nature power because of an incident described in a book that I read a few weeks ago. The book is set in the African Congo and involves a middle-of-the-night ant raid on a remote jungle village. Such a huge batallion of ants rambled through that the ground came alive with their massive numbers as they frantically searched for soft tissue to consume. Any living thing that was unable to escape to either river or treetop was stripped of its flesh before you could say, "ants in your pants." As a pack, the ants were constantly on the move and by morning had vacated the village.

Eventually we are brought to the point of remembering that the complexity of ecosystems may be beyond our human ability to comprehend.

In an earlier period, I might have interpreted this event as an infliction imposed by displeased deities. As a modern-day biologist, I am struck by the fierceness of a tiny insect when its numbers are multiplied a billion times over and it embarks on a voracious expedition during dramatic drought conditions. I contemplate ecosystem concepts and wonder which can be applied in explaining such a spectacle. Do legions of ants assemble because of competition with other species during times of resource shortages? Or maybe collectively they serve as a top predator in the tropical forest and their behaviors are defined by predator-prey interactions? Their need to keep moving must be determined at least in part by competition between themselves as they devour everything edible along their course. Is the fact that they attacked at night a mere coincidence or a deliberate strategy that evolved over time? Have humans, through their manipulations and disturbances of nature, contributed to the evolutionary pathways of these ants that strike in plague-like fashion?

Mount St. Helens erupting
Mount St. Helens Erupting
Courtesy USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory

And so my musings go on and on. I like to imagine that my next visit to a college library will turn up a series of papers by some clever doctoral student who will provide a bit of data and a few reasonable hypotheses for this phenomenon. Or better yet, I anticipate the literature brimming with papers, each ferociously defending its particular position amidst a banquet of controversy. After all, every topic in ecology, once it has reached an advanced stage of study, produces divisions in thinking as well as inevitable rethinking. The more a topic is examined, the more elaborate the debate becomes. Eventually we are brought to the point of remembering that the complexity of ecosystems may be beyond our human ability to comprehend.

That's when the intricacy of an ecosystem's structure and the beauty of its function hits me like a monsoon striking a southeast Asian shore. I am totally blown away by the enormity of its interconnections: living organism to living organism to non-living elements. And to think that across just one simple landscape of maybe only a few hundred miles there can exist many different ecosystems in all their tangled glory further complicating the story by interacting with each other!

Wow! I just realized that the awesome power of nature comes in many different forms. We don't have to literally get hit with gale-force winds or to be eaten up by tropical ants to know it first-hand. Just making our meager attempts to understand the exquisite workings of an ecosystem can invoke an awe in us that is as powerful as Mount St. Helens blowing its brains out in a multi-megaton blast!

Graphics Credits
+ The Vigil, Copyright © 2003, Terry L. H. Brumley (staff artist). All rights reserved.
+ Grasshoppers, 1936, Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
+ Mount St. Helens Erupting, Courtesy USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory, photo by Austin Post (US Geological Survey).

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