Understanding Perfection by Isabella Dobbins

Nature is perfect.

We all know that, right? It makes pretty good sense. We grow up knowing that the plants and animals take care of themselves. If we leave the forest be,  it just keeps on going. We open up a sixth-grade textbook and read about how structure matches function, how every part of the organisms that we exist around has a direct purpose. And nature? It just goes on. Nature does not have all the ills of Humans. It just is.  It’s perfect- that’s just basic knowledge.

It’s old news.

But here is something new that I just learnt in my two weeks at the former UGA Costa Rica campus—there is a HUGE difference between knowing something and understanding something. Knowing that a tree’s leaves are green is one thing; understanding that this color is produced by the plant’s chlorophyll, which traps light energy to produce food for the autotroph, is another.

I’ve been hiking a lot on the trails around campus and I’ve found a greater understanding of what I already know as an environmental health science student. I thought I knew that nature was perfect. But let me share with you three re-discoveries I’ve made concerning nature’s perfection on the senderos of Monteverde, Costa Rica.

  1. Nature has had a ton of practice.

The Earth is 4.543 billion years old. I just Googled that, but I already knew it was pretty dang ancient. That’s a lot of time to evolve, to adapt. Has nature just been lying around all these years, letting time just happen to it? Of course not. It’s been practicing. Forming commensal relationships, speciating, selecting traits that work the best for survival, becoming accustomed to the exact makeup of the atmosphere, soil, and bodies of water. I realized this when we were hiking in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Our guide would stop nearly every five minutes to tell us about how some native plant has adapted to improve its chances of being pollinated, its seeds being spread, or its reproductive fitness. For example, the Salvia microphyllaor “hot lips” plant: Its real petals are not of a bright color. So, it’s learned that if it develops “false petals,” or brightly colored leaves instead, pollinators like hummingbirds will still be attracted to it. It’s little things like this that show how organisms have become well aware of the best way to survive. Nature knows what it’s doing out there.

  1. Nature can keep itself in control.

We view death as tragic. And I’m not saying it’s not- I’ve just noticed that in nature, it’s commonplace, and well, just accepted. Nature has learned how much of each trophic level, each niche, needs to exist so that there’s just enough food for everything, just enough to create the next generation, just enough to balance population levels. Within two minutes of walking any trail in Monteverde, or even the streets of San José, you’re bound to see some hard-working little critters towing tiny bits of foliage: Leaf-cutter ants. These guys construct highways and constantly walk back and forth to deliver the leaves to the nests, where they serve as food for the fungus they grow. They’re one of the most numerous insects in the cloud forest. And one of their greatest predators is somewhat cruel: killer fungi. The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis will freeze an ant and proceed to shoot a fungal stalk right through its head before feeding on its insides. I’m bringing up this example not only because it’s insanely cool, but because although the killer fungi creates whole graveyards of ants, the ants still thrive. Ant death is necessary for the fungi’s survival, and necessary for the continual abundance of food and space for ant life. This is middle school level science knowledge, but it’s so different when you actually seen it in action—and really understand the importance of death in the work of nature.

  1. Nature doesn’t need us.

Throughout my hours of wandering the cloud forest on campus trails (which are kept as rustic as possible), seeing all the flora and fauna, I’ve been able to think about what it would be like if I really didn’t exist. If people didn’t exist. I cannot think of an organism or non-human biological process (besides, like, our gut microbiomes) that absolutely relies on humans for its survival and could not exist if humans did not either. Walking the trails has helped me imagine an Earth sans homo sapiens. Without us, the adaptations that animals have formed over millions of years would not be rendered nearly worthless by climate change. Without us, populations could remain balanced and avoid extinction by overhunting, destruction of habitat, or lack of sufficient resources. Without us, nature would go on, almost as it does when we see it from a trail. Without nature, humans would cease to exist. It’s a simple concept, but I hadn’t really though much of it until now.

Hiking has given me a chance to consider these all-important questions. I feel charged with a responsibility to communicate with others the understanding that can be found in even the simplest biological processes. What I took for granted as a simple statement I now think of as the intricate beginning of our world’s means of functioning:

Nature is perfect.

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