The World that Came in the Mail

Sagan, Carl. Billions and billions: thoughts on life and death at the brink of the millennium. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

Chapter 7

The world? Moonlit
Drops shaken
From the crane’s bill
DOGEN (1200 – 1253)

“Wake on impermanence”
from Lucious Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto
Zen poems of Japan: The crane’s Bill
New York Press, 1973


The world arrived in the mail. It was marked “Fragile.” A sticker depicting a cracked goblet was on the wrapping. I opened it carefully, dreading the tinkle of broken crystal, or the discovery of a shard of glass. But it was intact. With both hands, I lifted it out and held it up to the sunlight. It was a transparent sphere, about half filled with water. The number 4210 was inconspicuously taped to it. World number 4210: there must be many such worlds. Cautiously, I placed it on the accompanying Lucite stand and peered in.

I could see life in there – a network of branches, some encrusted with green filamentous algae, and six or eight small animals, mostly pink, cavorting, so it seemed, among the branches. In addition, there were hundreds of other kinds of beings, as plentiful in these waters as fish in the oceans of Earth; but they were all microbes, much too small for me to see with the naked eye. Clearly, the pink animals were shrimp of some suitably unpretentious variety. They caught your attention immediately because they were so busy. A few had alighted on branches and were walking on ten legs and waving lots of other appendages. One of them was devoting all its attention, and a considerable number of limbs, to dining on a filament of green. Among the branches, draped with algae much as trees in Georgia and north Florida are covered with Spanish moss, other shrimp could b seen moving as if they had urgent appointments elsewhere. Sometimes they would change their colors as they swam from environment to environment. One was pale, almost transparent; another orange, with an embarrassed blush of red.

In some ways, of course, they were different from us. They had their skeletons on the outside, they could breathe water, and a kind of anus was located disconcertingly near their mouths. (They were fastidious about appearance and cleanliness, though, possessing a pair of specialized laws with brush-like bristles. Occasionally, one would give itself a good scrub.)

But in other ways they were like us. It was hard to miss. They had brains, hearts, blood, and eyes. That flurry of swimming appendages propelling them through the water betrayed what seemed to be an unmistakable hint of purpose. When they arrived at their destination, they addressed the algal filaments with the precision, delicacy, and industriousness of a dedicated gourmet. Two of them, more venturesome than the rest, prowled this world’s ocean, swimming high above the algae, languidly surveying their domain.

After a while you get so you can distinguish individuals. A shrimp will molt, shedding its old skeleton to make room for a new one. Afterward, you can see the thing- transparent, shroud-like, handing rigidly from a branch, its former occupant going about this business in a sleek new carapace. Here’s one missing a leg. Had there been some furious claw-to-claw combat, perhaps over the affections of a devastating nubile beauty?

From certain angles, the top of the water is a mirror and the shrimp sees its own reflection. Can it recognize itself? More probably, it just sees the reflection as one more shrimp. At other angles, the thickness of the curved glass magnifies them, and then I can make out what they really look like. I notice, for example, that they have mustaches. Two of them race to the top of the water and, unable to to break through the surface tension, bounce off the meniscus. Then upright – a little startled, I imagine – they gently sink to the bottom. Their arms are crossed casually, it almost seems, as if the exploit were routine, nothing to write home about. They’re cool.

If I can clearly see a shrimp through the curved crystal, I figure, it must be able to see me, or at least my eye — some great looming black disk, with a corona of brown and green. Indeed, sometimes as I watch one busily fingering the algae, it seems to stiffen and look back at me. We have made eye contact. I wonder what it thinks it sees.

After a day or two of preoccupation with work, I wake up, take a glance at the crystal world….. They all seem to be gone. I reproach myself. I’m not required to feed them or give them vitamins or change their water or take them to the vet. All I have to do is make sure that they’re not in too much light or too long in the dark and that they’re always at temperatures between 40 degrees and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. (Above that, I guess, they make a bisque and not an ecosystem.) Through inattention, have I killed them? But then I see one poking an antenna out from behind a branch, and I realize they’re still in good health. They’re only shrimp, but after a while you find yourself worrying about them, rooting for them.

If you’re in charge of alittle world like this, and you conscientiously concern yourself about its temperature and light levels then — whatever you may have ahd in mind at the beginning– eventually oyou care about who’s in there. If they’re sick or dying, though, you can’t do much to save them. In certain ways, you’re much more powerful than they, but they do things — like breathing water – -that you can’t . You’re limited, painfully limited. You even wonder if it’s cruel to put them in this crystal prison. But you reassure yourself that at least here they are safe from baleen whales and oil slicks and cocktail sauce.

The ghostly molting shrouds and the rare dead body of an expired shrimp do not linger long. They are eaten, partly by the other shrimp, partly by invisible microorganisms that teem through this world’s ocean. And so you are reminded that theses creatures don’t work by themselves. They need one another. They look after one another – -in a way that I’m unable to do for them. The shrimp take oxygen from the water and exhale carbon dioxide. The algae take carbon dioxide from the water and exhale oxygen. They breathe each other’s waste gases. Their solid wastes cycle also, among plants and animals and microorganisms. In this small Eden, the inhabitants have an extremely intimate relationship.

The shrimps’ existence is much more tenuous and precarious than that of the other beings. The algae can live without the shrimp far longer than the shrimp can live without the alge. The shrimp eat the algae, but the algae mainly eat light. Eventually — to this day I don’t know why — the shrimp started dying, one by one. The time came when only one was left, morosely — it seemed — nibbling a sprig of algae until it too died. A little to my surprise, I found I was mourning them all. I suppose it was in part because I had gotten to know them a little. But in part, I knew, it was because I feared a parallelism between their world and ours.

Unlike an aquarium, this little world is a closed ecological system. Light gets in, but nothing else — no food, no water, no nutrients. Everything must be recycled. Just like the Earth. In our larger world we also — – plants and animals and microorganisms — live off each other, breathe and eat each other’s wastes, depend on one another. Life on our wold too is powered by light. Light from the Sun, which passes through the clear air, is harvested by plants and powers them to combine carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and other foodstuffs, which in turn provide the staple diet of the animals.

Our big world is very like this little one, and we are very like the shrimp. But erher is at last one major difference: unlike the shrimp, we are able to change our environment. We can do to ourselves what a careless owner of such a crystal sphere can do to the shrimp. If we are not careful, we can heat our planet trough the atmospheric greenhouse effect or cool and darken it in the aftermath of a nuclear war or the massive burning of an oil field (or by ignoring the danger of an asteroid or cometary impact). With acid rain, ozone depletion, chemical pollution, radioactivity, the razing of tropical forests, and a dozen other assaults on the environment, we are pushing and pulling our little world in poorly understood directions. Our purportedly advanced civilization may be changing the delicate balance that has tortuously evolved over the 4-bilion-year period of life on Earth.

Crustacea, such as shrimp, are much older than people or primates or even mammals. Algae go back three billion years, long before animals, most of the way back to the origin of life on Earth. They’ve all been working together — plants, animals, microbes — for a very long time. The arrangement of organisms in my crystal sphere is ancient, vastly older than any cultural institution we know. The inclination to cooperate has been painfully extracted through the evolutionary process. Those organisms that did not cooperate, that did not work with one another, died. Cooperation is encoded in the survivor’s genes. It’s their nature to cooperate. It’s a key to their survival.

But we humans are newcomers, arising only a few million years ago. Our presnt technical civilization is just a few hundred years old. We have not had much recent experience in voluntary inter-species, or even intra-species, cooperation. We are very devoted to the short-term and hardly ever think about the long-term. There is no guarantee that we will be wise enough to understand our planetwide closed ecological system, or to modify our behavior in accord with that understanding.

Our planet is indivisible. In North America, we breathe oxygen generated in the Brazilian rain forest. Acid rain from polluting industries in the American Midwest destroys Canadian forests. Radioactivity from a Ukrainian nuclear accident compromises the economy and culture of Lapland. The burning of coal in China warms Argentina. Chlorofluorocarbons released from an air conditioner in Newfoundland help cause skin cancer in New Zealand. Diseases rapidly spread to the farthest reaches of the planet and require a global medical effort to be eradicated. And, of course, nuclear war and asteroid impact imperil everyone. Like it or noet, we humans are bound up with our fellows, and with the other plants and animals all ove the world. Our lives are intertwined.

If we are not grace with a n instinctive knowledge of how to make our technologized world a safe and balanced ecosystem, we must figure out how to do it. We need more scientific research and more technological restraint. It is probably to much to hope that some great Ecosystem Keeper in the sky will reach down and put right our environmental abuses. It is up to us.

It should not be impossibly difficult. Birds — whose intelligence we ten to malign — know not to foul the nest. Shrimps with brains the size of lint particles know it. Algae know it. One celled microorganisms know it. It is time for us to know it too.


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