20 12 2008

An audience of dandelion-blowing kids gathers around to see what is so curious. They have spent part of the summer morning chasing through a field playing tag, sending dandelion umbrellas floating into the sky with a single breath, collecting ladybugs, tentatively tasting a wild berry that was not yet ripe … but now, they gathered around a new curiousity.

Stooped in the middle of the group, on center stage as it were — although the setting is in a meadow — a young girl no more than seven years old reaches out to touch the leaves of the plant she just discovered.

“Watch,” she said.

As her finger neared the leaf, the leaf quickly closed itself by folding the edges into the middle.

The other kids in the group abandoned their dandelions to look for more of the same kind of plant. Their attention did not move on to other magical bits of the day until everyone had their fill of the mysterious leaves that seemed to shrink shyly away from human contact. It was a sensitivity plant, or sensitive plant, they soon learned.

That moment had many echoes throughout the years. There was an echo when walking through a thick patch of ice plant … the polar opposite of the sensitivity plant. That was on the seashore, where the sea anenome makes a very similar gesture to the sensitivity plant as it captures food carried on the tide, closing itself upon its unsuspecting prey — as well as closing at the touch of a child’s finger. There was a strong echo of the sensitivity plant when picking a basketful of fiddle-head ferns for a salad. They had to be picked at the right season, and the right time of day, before they opened their leaves for the day. And there is a faint echo of the sensitivity plant every year as the seasons change and different facets of the natural world go into dormancy, pulling back to a protective stance.

Years later, the thread that started that day in the meadow would be revived for one of the students when he learned in a botany class that the mimosa pudica was a carnivorous plant, and when the leaves closed, the plant was hoping to enfold an insect small enough to ingest for a bit of nutrition. A magical moment of childhood resolved by finding a scientific explanation. The moment from childhood was no less magical, but the universe was one step closer to having a comfortable explanation.

Discovery seems to satisfy a deep urge in people. Something as simple as the sensitivity plant may already be known to millions of other people, but the moment when one particular child reaches out a finger for the first time and sees the plant respond to them … that is always magical, no matter when and no matter where it takes place.

That sense of wonder, that awe, is repeated in a kaleidoscope of different situations for children who are just discovering the universe on their own. The magic eventually evolves into a structured way of looking at the universe, a way of explaining away the parts that are not yet understood, or that have not yet been discovered. The world view evolves into a familiar structure, but that does not mean that there are no more surprises, no more discoveries to be made.

It just means that the way one’s mind understands the universe is sufficient at the moment. There are no overwhelming mysteries, no anomalies so obvious that they cannot be ignored.

That is not to say that there are no anomalies. It’s just that the mind has a way of ignoring what it doesn’t understand … ignoring the unknown until it is impossible to deny its existence. The proverbial “elephant in the room” that may be obvious to most people, but is invisible to anyone whose view of the universe has not yet discovered a rational explanation for elephants.