Writings : Mysteries and miracles of nature

Mysteries and miracles of nature

Does the complete understanding of a natural phenomenon strip away its miraculous qualities? It is certainly a risk. But it should at least maintain all of its poetry, for poetry subverts reason and is never dulled by repetition.

Besides, a few gaps in our knowledge will always allow for a joyous confusion of the mysterious, the unknown, and the miraculous.

We all seek, more or less consciously, to increase our knowledge of the unknown-if only out of a lazy desire to turn something that once required thought into something that no longer does. We then use this knowledge to predict, from a safe distance, phenomena in a variety of fields and to produce more numerous and more fruitful hypotheses that we hope will finally explain Nature once and for all. It is the preservation of our species that is at stake and incites this eternal curiosity. But compared to Nature, Man's imagination produces weak revelations. Indeed, without our constant updating, the most stable or most perpetuated revelations are quickly erased, leaving us few clues about our evolution. Thus Man would give up all his powers of invention for the answers that Nature's creations seem to hold. This great passion of Man drives him irresistibly toward the origin of all things. Unfortunately, this search has led certain minds away from scientific inquiry to more or less voluntary self-delusion, though they may be motivated by deep conviction and a yearning for truth, rather than a desire for glory.

But it is only when we recognize this need to understand do we realize the power the world creation has over us. Let us not confuse figments of the mind with actual experience. Instead, let's distract our insatiable curiosity for a moment with the simple contemplation of natural givens: subjects of wonder, charm, or horror, whose mystery seizes us when we seek to understand and identify with them.


It's no wonder the casual observer feels unsettled by the lack of order that seemingly rules over the planet's millions of animals. Our narrow minds need the comfort of carefully crafted logic and clear delineations.

But let's take a quick journey. It will be a disorderly one, but then again so are our subjects. We'll begin with the obvious observation that from the top of the food chain to the bottom animals are always bein eaten by other animals. We then notice that certain foods, though very similar, seem to be more preferable or more suitable. The same goes for habitat. These subtle variations in food and environment have the power to play endless tricks on us. We see animals that go from being oviparous to viviparous in reponse to mild temperature or abundant food. We see others that go from endlessy producing females-their successive generations fitting together like Russian dolls-to suddenly producing a male when faced with hunger or cold. We see males that are ridiculously dwarfish, whereas in a similar species they are magnificently built, vibrantly colored, and highly ornamented. While in most species the male dominates, there are cases-both among social and solitary animals- where the male's unpleasant fate is to be eaten or eviscerated by the female or condemned to die of hunger. There are females that continue to lay eggs throughout their lives next to legions of asexuals. Then there are cases of hermaphrodites that appear in some species at the onset of a new generation. Some just divide themselves in two, lengthwise or widthwise, others simply explode. There are eggs that are suspended in water but only develop if they are dehydrated by the sun or frozen. For some, fertilization occurs anonymously, water currents acting as the intermediary. For others, fertilization involves selection and combat. Sometimes, it is female who attends to her eggs; at other times, this service is performed by the male, who may even carry the eggs. (Every evening, Mr. Alytes, the obstetrician toad, comes to soak his packet of eggs.) In other instances, relatives entrust their offspring to the kindness of nature or simply drop them off with neighbors.

The subsequent development of the little ones offers just as many marvels. We see offspring who slowly substitute themselves for their parents by resorbing them; elsewhere, we see parents decompose in their children. We witness organs of propulsion becoming jaws, an eye passing from one side to the other or fusing to the one next to it; in some, all the organs disappear. While some young begin with identical forms, they grow into adults who look nothing like each other. So wildly different are the developmental stages in such a species that if one does not closely monitor their transformations, one could be easily fooled into believing these two individuals are not even related. Indeed, a dully colored, carnivorous larva might grow into a dazzling colored vegetarian who, when fully grown, no longer has a mouth and fasts until its death.

The different ways animals protect themselves varies wildly too: they employ shape, surface, changes in color, stillness, curling up, shells, tubes, burying, disguise, flight, nails, beaks, pincers, claws, hooks, teeth, jaws, mandibles, spines, tentacles, odor, electricity, ink jets, etc.

And when they attack, we see more variations still. The very mobile carnivores each have their own way of lying in wait: a slow, creeping approach; hesitation; encirclement; or absolute motionlessness. In slow-moving animals, the stakeout is accompanied by the play of tactile organs that operate as a king of warning. Though a stakeout always ends with an abrupt capture, the nature of the capture varies. The serpent crushes its prey in its coils before serving itself. The cat tears its victim apart and swallows feathers and hide. The duck seizes a snail in its bill and swallows it whole, dilating its esophagus in the process. The anteater, when it is tired, sticks its viscous tongue in a nearby anthill and withdraws it when it is covered with ants (who had unwittingly become stuck to it, having gathered around it to discuss its strange and sudden appearance). The toad snatches its prey dolefully while closing its eyes. The salamander tilts its head to the side as it contemplates a little worm crawling by, then slowly approaches it, coming within a millimeter, and finally lets loose in a skillful spasm. If a stickleback fish were to arrive at this moment, it might steal the worm but only swallow it halfway, appearing to be playing with it as it swims away. With eyes like two pivoting turrets in perpetual motion, the chameleon lances its prey with a certainty and a swiftness that belies its appearance. The dragonfly larva deploys its articulated mask and in a flash ensnares its prey between two hooks.

The water scorpion skewers its victim onto a pointed tip that serves as its mouth, then breathes it in with the aid of a piston. The larva of the dytiscid feeds itself in a similar way, though quite differently from the way the weasel bleeds little mammals to death. The confer eel is like a pneumatic mail tube and can easily swallow a fellow conger, an octopus, and great quantities of small fish. The octopus casually dispatches a tentacle toward a slow-moving crustacean while it simultaneously shatters a few mollusk shells with its parrotlike beak. The starfish extends its stomach and envelops the most stubborn bodies, while the anemone uses its multiples, sticky little armes to slip all sorts of goodies into a single, wide opening that serves as both an entrance and exit. The angler fish, a vast sack of stuffing, awaits a tug on its fishing line, then closes its enormous mouth over creatures that are quite incapable of satisfying this digestion factory. The well-armed crustaceans are very fond of jujitsu with the twisting of claws- pulled of pincers rejuvenate, an antenna soon substitutes for an eye. A glowworm can inject a fluid into a mollusk ten times its size that will cause it to decompose in its shell and reduce it to an absorbable gruel. Those who are molting are in grave danger, for the loss of their shell leaves them soft for several days; malicious gossip has it that the reason the conger eel eagerly guards the lobster's to molt in order to be able to eat it more easily.

But there are less violent habits: after skillful, slow-motion flight maneuvers, the carp louse lands on the backs of fish and fixes itself there in order to feed on the mucous secreted by their skin. Certain sea urchins endlessly scrape rocks for food, while others continuously swallow sand. Next to the strange and terrible parasites like the Sacculina (whose larvae affix themselves to a crab's shell then perforate it and dissolve through the crab to reemerge in the crab's abdomen in a form ready for reproduction), there are joyous commensals like the Iulus that, from its home on the shell of the hermit crab, slides between its host's claws and runs off with some lunch. We cannot forget the astonishing and insatiable cuckoo, its break forever open, swallowing up all the food meant for the four little ones that it rushes out of the nest.

But all this action can be distracting and sometimes nothing is as astonishingly splendid as the most static forms of life, which allow us to dream each moment without imposing coherence on us. From the enigmatic facies of the cat to the sadness of the seahorse that has lost its arms; from the fireworks of a giant fan worm to the dance of the starfish; from the oblique walk of the crab to the balled-up attention of the spider; from the charming games of the otter to the ethereal pulsation of the jellyfish; from the color of butterflies to the song of birds; from mollusks that cover the sea with veils of blue to animals in the shape of leaves, branches, or flowers; there is an infinite field of magnificent and continual joys that prevents us from completely elucidating the mystery or the miracle.


Jean Painlevé, "Mystères et Miracles de la Nature" originally published in VU, 29 March 1931.