October 10, 2002

Life. And Death. Of a Leaf, and Thee, and Me

image copyright Fred First

Caption: Before this Striped Maple leaf has fallen from the tree, but after it is cut off from its life support systems, microbes have already begun the work of disassembling its matter. Look especially along the veins where the sugary juices of this former leaf are sweet for the taking.

In a galaxy far, far away, back when I was teaching, on the first day of Biology 101, a pop test. Take out a sheet of paper (can you feel the prickly sensation in your arm pits?) and write the answer to this one question: WHAT IS LIFE?

Sample Answers:

  1. Life is living. Things that are alive. (Well, yes, use the question as the answer. Nice try)

  2. Living things breathe and move

  3. Something that is alive eats and reproduces

  4. Life is something that when its not, its dead

And so on. The answers I typically got back on that sweaty sheet of paper told me what living things do; extract energy from their environment, grow, reproduce, respond to stimuli and so on. All true statements. But not the answer. The truth is, we don't really have a definition or an equation for what LIFE is. We can detect it in matter by the processes we observe; we can take it away from creatures that posess it. Be we cannot define it. Which I thought was a good and humble way to begin our exploration of BIOLOGY, literally the study of life.

I have another student answer now.

Life is what keeps things from being reduced to mold and ash prematurely. From rotting. Decomposing. Returning to dust. From terminal infection, infestation and microbial ingestion.

Of course, the nature of things is such that there are attempts to take us apart bit by bit from inside and out as soon as we, or worm or mouse, or leaf, is born. The checks and balances of the nature of life somehow equip us life-bearers to reject or thwart most of these attempts. The ones that succeed, we call disease, infection, mycosis and such. It's a wonder we seldom consider that life keeps us more or less unconsumed.

At the moment of death, its like the opening doors at the back-to-school sale at WallyWorld. We are swarmed, permeated, dissolved, encorporated into other corpuscles...fungi and bacteria, mostly. They pick us up by the armload and carry us away. Our deconstruction begins, the recycling of all that matter that 'lived' and was us. Same thing is true for the million million leaves that swirl over the top of my roof this moment, from tree to air to soil to mold.

I will turn this process for the good. I will compost!. But that is another story. Enough for now. Run along to bed, kiddies, so you'll stay healthy. And it's not the bedbugs biting that you need to worry about.

Posted by fred1st at October 10, 2002 05:16 PM

Run along to bed now? Now, when fighting the morbid urge to consider all the things that are trying to pick me apart...fighting that urge so that I can instead ruminate on life, the meaning of, the definition of, the beginning, the end......thanks Fred. Sweet dreams to you, too!:p

Posted by: Lisa at October 10, 2002 11:04 PM

here's a point to ponder:Life is struggle.THAT'S what life is. More later, if you'de like the Jim Theory....

Posted by: Jim S at October 11, 2002 09:02 AM

Is life any natural system that has pseudo-functions created through natural selection, in other words, sub-systems selected for, such that they seem to be functions but aren't because they lack genuine purposes, having only pseudo-purposes that seem to conscious, purposive folk like us to be real purposes?

Posted by: Charlottesville at October 12, 2002 12:06 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?