Detail from Jan van Kessel II, Butterfly, Caterpillar, Moth, Insects, and Currants (1650-1655). The J. Paul Getty Museum.

I went on a walk last March with my daughter, picking our way around spring’s effluvia laid out like a carpet on the sidewalk: the crushed top of a hummingbird egg, and a black-and-red speckled insect I couldn’t identify. “It’s a ladybug larva, Mom,” my eleven-year old informed me. “Didn’t they teach you that in school?” They hadn’t taught me that in school. This creature looked like a ladybug rolled into a cylinder and pinched at both ends, a ladybug reflected in a funhouse mirror. 

“Larva” derives from the Latin word for a ghost or evil spirit; it came, by association, to name the masks used in Roman theater. In the seventeenth century, the budding science of zoology borrowed the term to describe the stage in an insect’s life cycle where it is no longer egg but not yet adult: a ghost, or mask, of what it will eventually become. This thing was the mask of a ladybug, its distorted iteration, a flash of what—in the fullness of time—it would turn towards and into.

In spring, on walks with my daughter, we also stumble upon one of the season’s casualties: a dead fledgling sprung from its nest too soon. Bobble-headed, violet eyelids and horny yellow beak, a scrim of pale blue feather-fuzz on its skull. Its body is plump and pink and wrinkled as an earthworm. When I pick it up it is finger-denting doughy, light as a leaf. 

We bury the baby bird underneath the nest from which it leapt, before its prime, before its time, the gangly ghost-shadow of its fuller future self.

Later that week we find an adult jay, resplendently blue and perfectly formed, lying on the sidewalk, as if he had just fallen asleep there. My eleven-year-old wants to bury him. “I’m not running a bird cemetery,” I object. She glares at me in silence until I go back behind the house and get the shovel. Now we have two miniature headstones nestled among the cacti in our front yard, each adorned with a painted heart, the size of a fingernail: white for the fledgling, blue for the jay. My daughter scatters flowers on the gentle swell of each tiny grave. 

***

Aristotle was the first real biologist, and gathered evidence for his scientific treatises, On the Parts of Animals and The Generation of Animals, while living on the island of Lesbos. There, he studied specimens that he pulled from a lagoon: crabs and bony fish, squid and mollusks. He complained that his predecessors’ efforts to catalog the natural world had remained on the level of description, divvying up plants and animals into classes using such accidental characteristics as “color” and “configuration.” A true science, he insisted, must move beyond the surface and delve into process, “how each of these animals comes to be what it is, and in virtue of what force.”

What counts in explaining any particular kind of life is not its substrate or matter—hyle—but its form or idea, eidos: the blueprint that determines what a thing must, of necessity, become. Aristotle uses the example of a piece of wood being sculpted on a lathe. “For it is not enough for the sculptor to say,” he argues by analogy, “that by the stroke of his tool this part was formed into a concavity, that into a flat surface.” Rather, “he must state the reasons why he struck his blow in such a way as to effect this, and what his final object was; namely, that the piece of wood should develop eventually into this or that shape.” A sculpture cannot be explained by reference to its material (bronze or wood or clay), nor by the actions to which it is submitted (cutting or shaping). Rather, it springs from the blueprint (eidos) of the object that the sculptor seeks to craft, and that he holds in his mind’s eye. Just so, an animal springs from the germ of its parent, which contains inscribed within it the eidos of the one and only animal it can become.

The temptation to read purposiveness into nature has dogged biology ever since. An American philosopher of biology, Edmund W. Sinnott, wrote of this temptation in a 1954 essay. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that adaptation (and thus evolution) is a matter of chance rather than intent, purposiveness continues to hover about natural phenomena. “To watch an animal egg cleaving in a precise fashion and marching inexorably on toward its culmination in the adult or to see a bud unfolding into an intricate system of leaf and flower…gives a vivid impression of activity that is goal-directed,” he muses. “Whatever we may think of it in theory, the organism looks as if it was going somewhere.” Or observe, for instance, how “the wing of a cicada is unpacked as the adult bursts its larval bonds,” he urges. “No parachute was ever folded with the precision these organic structures show, the more remarkable since they develop from a tiny, formless mass of cells.”

Many centuries after Aristotle floated his analogy between the purposive unfolding of an animal and the sculptor’s art, the English verb “turn” evolved out of the Greek word for a turning lathe, tornos, parleyed into Latin tornare: the act of shaping, polishing, fashioning matter into form by spinning it on a lathe. Hence the English word’s connotations of a process by which a thing—a “mass of cells,” a hunk of wood, “without form and void” (Genesis 1:2)—becomes what it was always intended to become: literally turns into itself.

***

But no form lasts forever. What do we call it once the eidos of a form is reached, once the thing a thing is supposed to become achieves peak thingness? We used to visit my husband’s great-aunt when she was in her eighties, meeting on Sundays to eat undercooked eggs and sugary bagels in a northeast Philadelphia diner. She kept her bottle-blond hair swirled in a fifties-era bouffant, a relic from youth that she carried forward with her. Her nails, in shiny burgundy splendor, clicked against her glass of iced tea. But amid these reminders of an earlier iteration of herself—when she was young, and colorful, and naturally blonde—what always transfixed me was her skin falling in soft bracelets around her wrists as she stood up.

As I age, I find myself physically turning into my mother. A certain way of inflecting my voice when I call my children pet names (“dear heart,” I cluck—alarming, unbidden). Ever-thickening ankles. Occasionally I skip a generation and channel my father’s mother instead; sometimes now when I eat, my left pinky finger levitates slightly, exactly as my grandmother’s did as she chewed her breakfast toast.

These evolving tics and echoes do not go unnoticed. The other day my eldest daughter caught hold of the under-flesh of my arm in one of my unguarded moments and screeched, “It’s soft, just like Grandma Kate!” (Afterwards she kissed the top of my head and said wistfully, “I don’t want you to die.”) And so it is: my skin is becoming soft as a dog’s silk belly—soft with the slippery, ceding velvet of ripe fruit. “Past their prime,” my mother says, shaking her head at pears forgotten on the kitchen counter, turning to rot.

My turning flesh haunts me when I chance to catch it in the mirror: the flap between neck and chin, thin and white as a skin on hot milk when you pinch it between thumb and forefinger. My speckled hands. Aging is a kind of anti-eidos, a downward tumble back into formless matter.

***

This past March, tiny brown Painted Lady butterflies descended on Los Angeles. The plentiful rain brought them, winging their way north out of the Mexican desert to breeding grounds in Oregon. As I drove through the city, I mistook them for swirls of ash or paper. Clumps of them dipped and dove at my car, sucked into its undertow, as wind or a chance wingbeat jerked the lucky few up and away from the hurtling metal. The sheer volume of butterflies, and the hecatomb that I knew awaited them every day on the 405, was tough to stomach. Really? I had to wonder: was no species learning curve going to kick in? Was there no way to circumvent the carnage? No. Nature’s potlatch marched on, cool, undeterred. The butterfly invasion lasted three days.

Nature’s spectacular waste in pursuit of propagation is on display in the vegetable kingdom, as well. Eye-catching fruits and flowers rig up baroque systems of seduction to get themselves reproduced. The bird of paradise plant’s splay of crenellated orange and blue blooms join, at their base, to form a nectar pouch. When sunbirds perch on the stalk to sip, its petals coyly scatter pollen onto their feet.

Or take, for example, the tree hura crepitans, informally known as the Dynamite Tree. Not content to stake its genetic fate on the whimsy and chance of passing animals, the dynamite tree’s pumpkin-shaped fruits are capsules designed literally to crack open and explode, jettisoning seeds like a spray of shrapnel, up to 100 meters from the parent plant: vegetable ejaculation.

Humans are, from this evolutionary perspective, nothing more than highly complex seed pods. The fruit matters only as host: once its disseminating mission is complete, it crumples up and rots.

***

Other times, I take the long view. Then biology seems less a straight line unfolding from birth to death, the inexorable wax and wane of form, than an endless shuffling and reshuffling of traits across time. We appear on earth, return to dust, and then reappear, in scattered bits and pieces, in our offspring ever after. The curve of a lip, the swing of an arm, the lilt in a voice: scraps of DNA chopped up and broadcast across the generations. My grandmother’s nose is recapitulated, in diluted form, in the pinched flare of my eldest daughter’s right nostril: a certain crookedness I, too, inherited and that, once, at my grandmother’s funeral, allowed me to pick out of a crowd a long-lost cousin.

I was at the refreshment table at the reception, after the cemetery, pouring myself a glass of subpar white wine (the only kind my family ever served) into a plastic cup when I glanced up to see a girl I’d never met before, and it was like catching a passing glimpse of myself in a mirror. I sidled up to my cousin, who was picking at the fruit plate. “Who is that girl?” I whispered. “That’s Margaret’s daughter,” she replied, nonplussed, popping a strawberry into her mouth. As though it were the most unremarkable thing in the world that my Aunt Margaret, whom I had known for all twenty-six of my living years and who assuredly had no daughter, should suddenly have a daughter. Margaret was my mother’s younger sister, and her spitting image: same slightly tweaked nose, same strong jaw and full, perfect smile. Growing up she was our favorite aunt because she was more kid than adult. At Christmas she came bearing gifts from Boston: a bright green stuffed frog half my height; a lavender Indian pouch with tiny bits of mirror stitched into it; shiny red beans the size of a pea, hollowed out and filled with miniature white carved elephants you could shake out onto the palm of your hand.

But Margaret did have a daughter, it turned out. Out of wedlock, born in a convent, given up for adoption twenty-seven years before, a secret the entire family had never breathed word of until my grandmother had safely passed. Here, suddenly, against all chance, a second self dredged up from oblivion, unmistakable; my grandmother’s cells had marked us both in precisely the same way. A shibboleth carved in flesh: We belong to each other.

Stranger still are the subterranean siftings of DNA across time, throwing off sparks that light up and then disappear, mutate and recombine, soften or stretch, lie silent only in order to flash up once more across the span of years to form improbable, heart-stopping constellations in the bodies and faces of your relatives. Sometimes you will only catch these ghosts in photographs, as if the blank mechanical recording surface of the camera could detect patterns of light, pick out secret angles and refractions, invisible to the unaided eye. My father had an older brother who died of polio when he was 9 and my father was 5. Among the photographs of Michael that survive is one taken on a summer day the year before he died. He is standing in front of his house, shirtless and thin, baggy shorts cinched at the waist, one arm thrown across his chest with his fingers resting lightly on the opposite shoulder. He exudes the indolence of a body freed from the strictures of school clothes and cold weather, a body abandoning itself to the warmth of the sun. A trace of a smile plays on his lips. His eyes, ice-blue even in this black-and-white image, fix the viewer fast: here I am.

As I scroll through Facebook, I fall on a cousin’s recent post, a professional portrait of her and her husband in the family portrait genre: a soft-focus background of indeterminate nature, a flash of green hinting at a garden. But what strikes me is the resemblance, around her teeth and mouth, and maybe the arch of the eyebrow, to Michael. The portrait has the effect of a visitation: Michael come back, peeking out just for a split second from beyond the grave. Here he is; my cousin has unwittingly carried him all this way, a silent passenger still asking, shyly, to be remembered.

***

My daughters and I went for a hike in a canyon during the Painted Lady migration. Also because of the rain, the ridge we walked along was alive with blue-green scrub—unusual for this normally rocky, desert landscape. The hills were blanketed in soft shoots and grasses, the color of dragonfly wings, tender as corn silk. As the wind blew over and through them, they rippled in thrilling, zig-zagging patterns, like velvet rubbed the wrong way then suddenly smoothed back down by an invisible cosmic finger. The Painted Ladies dodged and pitched in the wind, only occasionally stopping to rest for a wingbeat or two, to warm themselves in the sun. Then they were gone.

These tiny creatures might make it to Oregon. Or, they might not. Only God knows for sure. Nature’s harrowing disregard for the individual life forms we hold dear—mother, daughter, father, son—has ever been a wound, and a mystery. We imagine someone, somewhere­, must be counting. Even the bobble-headed fledgling found its way onto somebody’s list—my daughter’s—when she marked its passing with a tiny headstone. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father,” promises the Gospel; “The very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29-30).

The lure of a final counting—eternity’s roll-call—has always been among Christianity’s greatest attractions, one I knew well growing up in the Catholic church, but one I look upon, today, as a species of magical thinking. On the last day, the earth and the sea will give up their dead, all God’s lost treasures rendered: then the dead “great and small” will stand before His throne, and “this corruptible shall have put on incorruption” (Corinthians 15: 54). Or so Paul promises. The dream of resurrection is the dream of an eidos that stops turning, heaven putting earth’s changefulness to rout.

We despair of matter—its inconstancy, its corruption, its fragility. Yet William James, who knew whereof he spoke (he lost his one-year-old son, Hermann), had this to say of matter: “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after.” Form doesn’t have to be eternal. The simple fact that matter accommodated this beloved form passing through (“for a time”), is the joy, and the wonder.

It is not everything, but maybe it is enough.

Ellen Wayland-Smith

Ellen Wayland-Smith is an associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (Picador 2016) and The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press, April 2020). She reviews essays and memoir for The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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