Consider the Microbe

by Grant A. Mincy

Photo Credit: Oregon State

Photo Credit: Oregon State

All too often, in our considerations of the wild, we overlook the simple, microscopic life that lives in absolute abundance around us, in us and on us. The microbe is the foundation of all ecology. These prokaryotes, the simplest of cells, allow for the sustenance of life. From the inferno of the Hadean Earth, they enabled all the great radiations of life. The microbe will craft worlds our civilizations will never know. American micro-biologist Carl Woese, famous for classifying the microbial domain Archaea, is quoted by the New York Times:

It’s clear to me that if you wiped all multicellular life-forms off the face of the earth, microbial life might shift a tiny bit . . . If [on the other hand] microbial life were to disappear, that would be it – instant death for the planet.

We should be humbled by this order. Behind such a simple existence lies an infinite complexity — a beautiful bounty, billions of years of history and a wonder that we will never truly understand. For this, and many other reasons, I am amazed by and adore the natural world.

I am an advocate of wilderness preservation for what open spaces can teach us. I do not mean the information found in stratigraphy, though rocks do tell the greatest tale ever told — they have crafted their story for some 4.6 billion years, after all. I instead refer to nature for nature’s sake. When we take time to contemplate the microbe, we see the simple turn to the complex in a great bottom up diversification of life. The wild functions under the fixed laws of nature. It is competition in a world of scarcity, mutualism among species of different Kingdoms, cooperation among the three great domains of life and selection pressures that order the natural world.

The wild inspires the imagination. How different our world could be. If only we practiced in the same bottom up tradition.