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Straight land cycles in nature

Bill Meredith

Ezekiel saw the wheel,
’way up! in the middle of the air;
Ezekiel saw the wheel a-turnin’,
’way in the middle of the air.
~ Spiritual, Anonymous

"Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we."
~ Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

(9/2017) My grandmother led an orderly life in which the daily tasks of housekeeping were arranged between radio programs. The names of them are gradually fading from my memory now, but some remain… one of the first soap operas, "Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins;" evangelists like Billy Sunday, a former baseball player who would run the bases and "slide home safe for Jesus" every morning; and a variety of country and Christian music programs that would "come through the air from our KDKA studio to your own living room."

At the age of three, I took everything literally, and I actually believed the musicians were shrunk in size and sat on little chairs inside the radio as they played their guitars and sang. Many of the songs were the ones we sang in church, but the ones that fascinated me most were Spirituals. I especially liked the one about Ezekiel; he was in one of the Bible stories Grandma read to me, and it was easy to envision the scene, So, it was fascinating to think that the singers were sitting inside Grandma’s radio as they sang about Ezekiel; I remember actually envisioning the Little Wheel spinning inside the Big Wheel above their heads, and wondering where the wheels went when the radio was turned off.

All of this drifted into my consciousness one morning last week. I really don’t know how or why; there was no logic to it… for I was sitting at the breakfast table, watching a hummingbird at the feeder outside the window. It had a tiny white speck at the base of its beak on each side, so I knew it was a young bird, recently out of the nest, which is somewhere in a tree on the west side of our house; and it was a female, for it had a white throat. Her wings were a blur, beating 50 or 60 times a second and holding her body motionless as she sipped from the feeder. It was amazing to watch… but to me, the most amazing thing about it was that at the age of two weeks or so, she was living independently and already knew all she would need to know in life.

If she fits the average pattern of her species, her family is around somewhere. Each day, I see adult hummingbirds at the feeder; they are probably her parents, for they are territorial and would chase other adults away. The parents normally raise two broods each summer, and the mother’s body isn’t big enough to produce more than two eggs at a time… so there could be as many as four young siblings buzzing around in my yard, if they were not eaten by squirrels or blue jays before they left the nest.

When they fledged, they may have followed their mother to the feeder, but their brains already contained the information that if they poke their beaks into those brightly-colored round things that we humans call flowers, they will find food. And they are not aware it, but their brains are recording the fact that each day is about two minutes shorter than the one before; this stimulates their endocrine glands to produce hormones, and they are storing fat in their bodies. In a week or two, the adults will leave, without saying goodbye, and head south toward Guatamala or Columbia, as they did last year. And in another week or so, my little female will take one last sip from the feeder and fly off as the pattern of nerve cells in her brain directs her.

She has no idea where she is going, but she will fly at an average speed of 20 mph for about 100 miles each day, allowing for time to rest and eat. Depending on prevailing winds and storms, in a week or two she will reach the Gulf of Mexico. There she will rest and eat to create fat reserves for several days; and then one day when there is a tail-wind to the south, she will fly over 500 miles, non-stop, to the coast of Mexico somewhere on or near Yucatan. And if she avoids accidents, predators, disease and weather, she will come back to the Emmitsburg area next May.

When we teach Biology, we look for patterns. If we find one that describes how something lives, we call it a "life cycle," and when we have studied it in detail, we can make generalizations about other organisms. When I took Botany, I learned the life cycle of moss plants… remember sporophytes, gametophytes, antheridia, archegonia? We looked at microscope slides, drew diagrams, and memorized… and most students hated it. Most students forgot those details as soon as the exam was over, and went on to make their careers in other fields. But a few of us found that it was fascinating; furthermore, it was actually useful, for if we mastered the moss life cycle, it was easier to learn about ferns, and then cone-bearing plants, and then flowers. And then, amazingly, animals. Life cycles were common to all of them. So those few of us who found it interesting became biologists.

As humans, we have a life cycle too, but it is harder to think about it because we are so directly and personally involved. We are too close to have any perspective when we try to apply cyclic ideas to ourselves. Instead of being cyclic, to us life looks linear; it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Yet it is a cycle, just like moss plants and hummingbirds. But there the difference begins, because we are human.

We are born knowing almost nothing, we learn to walk, speak, eat some things but not others, clean and dress ourselves, read, play games with rules, calculate sums, then products, then ratios, then probabilities, place value on certain things, develop skills to support ourselves, select a mate, build a home, raise a family, recognize when we need medical help, teach our grandchildren, cope with aging… and, sooner or later, we die. All along the line, we keep learning things that other living organisms do not know: history, morality, ethical standards, social skills, psychology, politics….

All of this from looking at a hummingbird? Yes. Honestly. Believe it or not. As I watched her, she would move in a circle around the feeder, sipping from each of the yellow plastic "flowers;" then she would dart in a bigger circle to the geraniums in the window box, then to some late-blooming hostas by the path, then to the rose mallow by the plum tree, and then back to the feeder. A little wheel in a bigger wheel… Aha! Ezekiel! Ah, yes. Remember how they sang that on Grandma’s old cathedral radio? Golly, that must have been 1936, because Dad didn’t have the ’37 Chevy yet… I would have been three then! And I’m just now beginning to understand it all. Hmmm- how did the other verse go?

And the little wheel turned by Faith,

And the big wheel turned by the Grace of God.

A wheel inside a wheel, a-turnin’

Way in the middle of the air.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith