Friday, 3-16 turned out to be a “red-letter-day.” Ex-student Jared Grummer was returning to Seattle from Argentina and wanted to share some of his adventures. He had just completed a 5-month field-study exploring the genomes of the lizards of Patagonia. This involves the last leg of his efforts to obtain a PhD degree in herpetology from the University of Washington.
The weather was supposed to be spring-like and so we decided to meet at Lake Hennessey, about 7 miles east of the town of St. Helena. The weatherman was correct and following nearly 20 inches of rainfall in March, the lake was filled to overflowing and life was emerging in great profusion. As we walked and talked along the lake, western fence lizards sunned themselves on every log and rock. Two garter snakes must have felt our footsteps and slithered off the road and into the grass. Majestic ospreys soared overhead waiting for the chance to grab a fish in their talons. An elegant Great Blue Heron glided downwind and gracefully landed at water’s edge with only one effortless wing-beat. Cormorants skimmed by with wingtips nearly touching the water.
We found a beautiful rustic redwood bench to share a picnic lunch and, of course, some stories about our mutual passion for biology. Although our conversation was rooted in biology, it often branched smoothly into matters of spirituality and metaphysics.
The lake is only about 2 miles long, but it is plenty long enough to see the curvature of the Earth. Jared had read about seeing this in BOFAW, however, he was a bit skeptical. Seeing is often a prerequisite to believing and he was delighted to see the subtle arc. This conjured up the mystery of gravity and we laughed to think of Mike Sparks (another ex-student) who currently walks around “upside down” in New Zealand. ;o) It is one of the greatest natural mysteries as to how gravity can be strong enough to hold our feet on the earth yet not so powerful as to crush us.
We enjoyed recalling Isaac Newton saying: “I have described how gravity behaves, not how it works or who made the stars and planets, each with its own gravitational field.”
The moon was high above us and I recalled learning that it had to be the perfect size and distance from both the Sun and Earth to allow life to occur. Any larger or closer and we might have ocean tides of 100 feet or more—smaller or more distant and tides would not exist, hastening global oceanic stagnation. The moon also plays a role in stabilizing the Earth’s axis, which is 23.5 degrees. If the Earth were not tilted there would be no seasons and equatorial temperatures would make life impossible. This would likely lead to major global warming, drastically increased winds, tornadoes and hurricanes. There was much to see and talk about, but I was totally unprepared to witness something I had only seen on film or video.
All of a sudden, two Western Grebes popped up on top of the water and without using their wings, did a perfectly synchronized “prenuptial line-dance.” Essentially, they danced together for about 20 feet before they plopped back into the water. We were both highly amused. This happened several times until something even greater happened. THREE grebes exploded up on the water and danced about 20 feet, but reversed 180 degrees and without sinking, danced back about 10 feet before plopping back into the water. This produced some intriguing questions. Even with his binoculars, the events were too quick and too far away for Jared to determine the sex of the dancers. Were there three males trying to impress a nearby female? Were there two males and one female or visa-versa? And most beguiling of all, assuming that the female had the privilege of selecting a mate, what was it about the “aquatic ballet” that gave her clues about the potential ability of her chosen mate to help her raise a brood of chicks?
Perhaps equally important, how is it possible that the grebes can do something on water that even the world’s greatest ballerinas could not dream of doing? And, perhaps, because this is the week before Easter, the grebes reminded me that one of the many miracles Jesus is credited with was walking on water.
Sadly, it occurred to me that we have become a nation of people who do not believe in, let alone celebrate miracles. After all, Jared and I were riding on a bench that has a rotational velocity of 600 mph. We are living on a planet that travels @ 67,000 mph around the sun and our Solar System is traveling @ 515,000 mph through the Milky Way Galaxy. And yet, there we were, being calmed, soothed and inspired by the magical tranquility of the water.
Christie and I have been out to Lake Hennessey probably over 100 times and we have never seen the “Dancing Grebes.” John Muir commented that Nature always provides us with more visions that we could ever expect and this was true Friday, 3-18-16. The Grebes Dance
Jared and I met at noon and I was shocked to see that the afternoon had flown and it was after 4:00 pm when we left the lake. It was a supreme honor to share the life of a very bright and curious ex-student and see that he is bound for horizons that I will never see.