The other day I went on a nature walk with Judy to find some recently arrived painted buntings. As Judy scouted the treetops with her binoculars, I found a delightful cluster of purple flowers under my feet. They were so tiny I had to squat on my haunches to see what they were about.
Judy noticed my nose to the ground and said, “Those are frog fruits.”
“Frog fruits? That’s a curious name,” I said, wondering what had inspired such a moniker when they resembled neither a frog nor a fruit.
Judy was about to go into master naturalist mode when she changed tack and said in a hushed voice, “Look behind you – slowly – to your right.”
I could tell from her tone that whatever was behind me was a living thing that would bolt at the slightest provocation; so I turned my head ever so robotically and reminded myself that, since Judy wasn’t backpedaling toward her golf cart or hyperventilating, this creature wasn’t going to kill me.
Instantly, my eyes landed on what nearly every creature in the animal kingdom fears: a snake in the grass. Long. Black. Slithery tongue. My heart cartwheeled.
“Water moccasin?” I whispered.
“Racer snake,” said Judy. “They’re incredibly fast.”
“Is it poisonous?” I asked, praying my speedy opponent had been given just the one advantage over me.
“No, he’s not venomous—or aggressive. He’s just out here soaking up some sun.” Judy was now within ten feet of it, shooting it with her zoom lens, so I decided to get a closer look too, with my binoculars.
Sleek and shiny, it had monochromatic scales cascading the length of its body in a pattern reminiscent of the Fibonacci sequence I’d recently learned about. I’m not sure snakeskin is a true example of a Fibonacci spiral, but it certainly counts as a common pattern.
In fact, the more I look at shells, snakes, and sand grains, the more I see how Mother Nature can take a theme and really run with it. I mean, have you noticed how common spirals are? Or how the middle of a frog fruit looks like an artichoke? Just the other day I noticed that the mottled background of a well-dried keyhole urchin looks like the skin of an alligator; and the skin of an alligator looks, well, not unlike the skin on my shins in January.
I can’t help thinking all this repetition must mean something, like a cosmic key that could unlock the code of the Universe and reveal all its secrets. If only my intellect could match my curiosity, how much fun would that be?
When I shared this fantasy with Judy, she laughed and said, “I’ve heard it’s annoying to always be the smartest person in the room. At least, that’s what Holly Hunter says in Broadcast News.”
(Just between me and you, I have a feeling Judy might actually know from experience.)
As for me, I’ll have to make do with some other approach to understanding the natural world besides being a scientific expert, because even though I’m fascinated by natural science, a well-ordered mind was not included in my design. The inside of my noggin looks more like a lava lamp than a filing cabinet.
But no worries. Sometimes it feels good just to be with nature, you know? To just let yourself sit with the mystery. As Emily Dickinson once said, “The largest need of the intellect is the unknown.” And Iris Dement thinks it’s just fine to “Let the Mystery Be.”
So on that note, I’d like to leave you with the mesmerizing poetry of Mary Oliver:
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
Featured image of frog fruit and flower fly by Bob Peterson.