Have you ever had an epiphany? Not the Road to Damascus variety, or anything, but suddenly becoming aware of something wonderful that had always seemed to be hidden behind a curtain, or lurking just offstage? And not only does it suddenly emerge, but you are captivated by it, and wonder why it escaped your notice until that moment -the Why of things, itself intoxicating.
It can be anything, I suppose: the crisp edges of the silhouette of a distant tree top as the sun begins to drop below the horizon; the evolving sparkle as sunlight plays on the surface of a burbling stream; or even the crunch of your feet on a trail filled with fallen leaves. If these are not epiphanies, I don’t know what to call the sudden appreciation of the beauty of what we encounter.
It is often captured in the metaphor of poetry, of course: Gerard Manley Hopkin’s ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; it gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil crushed.’ Or another favourite of mine by E. J. Pratt, writing about seagulls: ‘For one carved instant as they flew, the language had no simile. Silver, crystal, ivory were tarnished. Etched upon the horizon blue, the frieze must go unchallenged, for the lift and carriage of the wings would stain the drift of stars against a tropic indigo or dull the parable of snow…’ There are many, many other examples, of course, but I think you catch my meaning.
And yet, although I do not have their gift of words, the sudden magic can occur, albeit silently, somewhere behind my eyes.
For example, things seem so different after a summer rain. The green is greener, the leaves glisten, and the forest, wrapped in mist, seems enchanted. Things even smell different: fresh, and newly invigorated, like someone had been digging up the ground for planting. I imagine the smell has accompanied me on every such walk, and yet, because it was in the background, I barely noticed it. Until, that is, I happened upon an article in the Conversation written conjointly by Klas Flärdh, Professor of Molecular Cell Biology, Lund University, and Paul Becher, Associate professor in Chemical Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences: https://theconversation.com/heres-why-soil-smells-so-good-after-it-rains-135978
They point out that the earthy smell that rises after a light summer rain ‘has been called “petrichor”, and a main component of it is an organic compound called geosmin [from the ancient Greek “geo”, meaning earth, and “osme”, meaning smell], which lingers around moist soil.’ Okay, perhaps there’s nothing particularly magical about that, but it’s very presence begins that mysterious journey into Why: why is geosmin made in the first place; why is it important; and why should we care?
It turns out that ‘geosmin is made by microorganisms in the soil, primarily by bacteria with the scientific name Streptomyces. These bacteria are abundant in soil and are among nature’s best chemists, as they make a wide range of molecules… from which many antibiotics derive.’ Not only that -interesting as it may be- but ‘all streptomycetes have the gene for making geosmin, suggesting that it has an important function… Streptomycetes normally grow as mycelium – a network of long, branching cells that entwine with the soil they grow in. When they run out of nutrients or conditions in the soil deteriorate, the bacteria escape and spread to new places by making spores that can be spread by wind or water,’ and by some insects that are attracted to the smell of geosmin.
In other words, the almost ubiquitous smell of moist soil, may be ‘an ancient type of communication between bacteria and the creatures that live with them in the soil.’
I suppose I found this so very interesting and epiphanous, because every so often, I am reminded of the constant chatter of signals coming from what I would have considered the most unlikely sources: trees communicating via fungal networks between roots; plants talking to each other with chemicals; or discovering that bird song, which, when slowed down for the human ear by technology, often contains far more information in their patterns than simply noise.
We humans are limited, not only by our hubris, and not only by our arrogant assumption that we are what evolution was aiming for, but also by the limitations of our physiology. We simply cannot smell the world as well as, say, most dogs; without technology, we cannot appreciate much of the electromagnetic spectrum, nor the acoustic spectrum for that matter. In many ways, we are the apocryphal blind man describing an elephant -our conclusions are drawn from what we are able to perceive.
So, the sudden awe that occurs when something previously hidden or obscured jumps out at us, is an unbidden gift -something for which we should be grateful. And yet, with every gift, comes the expectation, however tenuous or disguised, of some sort of reciprocity. To be sure, gratitude for the benevolence is often the only anticipated repayment, but in fairness, there is more required than a token smile, or nod. Not that the soil, or the plant is able to invite something more than gratitude when you discover the magic of a hidden world previously unbeknownst to you -but I think the hope (if I can anthropomorphize a silhouette or a babbling creek) is that by revealing something entirely unsolicited, we can come to appreciate our profound relatedness to the life around us.
We do not think alone, nor is our journey simply that of Macbeth’s ‘poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.’ Life is a community of actors, that not only play different parts, but sometimes speak different languages that we cannot hope to hear unless we listen.
Poetry again -this time Kahlil Gibran:
The hidden well-spring of your soul must needs rise and run murmuring to the sea;
And the treasure of your infinite depths would be revealed to your eyes.
But let there be no scales to weigh your unknown treasure;
And seek not the depths of your knowledge with staff or sounding line.
For self is a sea boundless and measureless.