“How had the Dicranum moss come to be? Why was it so markedly diverse? Why had nature bestowed such pains in making each variety so minutely different from the others? Why were some varietals so much hardier than their nearby kin? Had there always been such a vast mix of Dicranum or had they transmuted somehow—metamorphosed from one into another—while sharing a common ancestor?”
This from Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things (p. 192), a compelling story about Alma Whittaker, a (fictional) woman botanist of the 19th century. Mosses are her specialty and as the above quote shows, she becomes fascinated by the hundreds upon hundreds species of moss.
I share the fascination with the question of variety. Not so much with moss, but with people. Here is a world trying to make everyone like everyone else, ignoring nature’s mandate that no two of anything is exactly alike. And at the same time, we try to fix people into their variation and surround it with a hierarchy of good and bad, powerful and weak, worthy and marginal, missing entirely the beauty and necessity of each variety. And ignoring the fact of transmutation, that none of us is a fixed noun, but a constantly flowing verb moving toward some better version of ourselves. Always a work in progress.
In the next paragraph, Alma references Lamark who “argued that every species on earth had transformed since its original creation because of an ‘interior sentiment’ within the organism, which longed to perfect itself.” In those days, this was a radical notion, contradicting the idea of a perfect God creating the world exactly as it should be. Seems like it was all more a “rough draft” and evolution was Nature’s way of striving to perfect an imperfect Creation, of editing the work and approaching a final draft.
I’m no scientist, but I love this image of transmutation, all of us on the way guided both by a general “interior sentiment” to improve our species and a specific interior guide, what the Greeks called the Daimon, to reveal why we as individuals are put together the way we are and what our purpose is in being made this way. The species is suffering at the moment with an epidemic rise in fundamentalism, fanaticism and Trump voters, but Nature is patient and evolution is a long process, two steps forward, one step back—or sometimes the other way around.
But whether moss or man, diversity is our inheritance and we would do well to welcome it, understand it, enjoy it, honor it. And keep transmuting to our better selves.