Dancing upon shadows

November 14, 2019

There’s a spot along Klootchy Creek east of Seaside where Gearhart naturalist Neal Maine has been dropping in to observe water striders on the calm pools at the water’s edge. The tree canopy here is sparse, letting through enough light to see—and photograph—the tiny creatures. Only after observing for hours, however, was Neal able to see for himself how water striders manage to skate on the water’s surface.

“You see these six legs striking out, but in bright sunlight you can see these big “catchers’ mitts” at the end of those legs: transparent pads of hairs that are crystal clear,” Neal recalls. “The sunlight casts a shadow on these big paws. Then you realize that’s what they’re walking around on, distributing that weight, making a dent on the meniscus of the water but not breaking through it.” Water striders are actually covered with hydrophobic microhairs, more than one thousand per millimeter, repelling water and preventing stray drops of water from weighing down the bug’s body. Water striders can be found on nearly any body of water, including the ocean.

Then, coincidentally, Neal happened on this passage in naturalist Loren Eiseley’s 1964 book The Unexpected Universe (though perhaps not so coincidentally, as Neal often turns to Eiseley when he’s seeking to make sense of the world):

“I have often looked with speculative interest upon those delicate insects that row with feathery feet upon the waters of a brook. They make but a slight dimple upon the film of sliding water. They breathe the air; they rove in an immense freedom over ponds and watercourses. The insubstantial film upon which they float resembles the surface tension of the living screen of life, in which every organism, like the forces in the atom, exerts an enormous hold, directly or indirectly, upon every other living thing. The water striders have evolved a way of outwitting the water film that entraps the heavy-footed. In their small way have risen superior to a dangerous medium and have diverted its tension to their own advantage.

“Man has similarly defeated and diverted the entire web of life and dances, dimpling, over it. Like the water strider he possesses the freedom of a dangerous element. Even the water strider’s freedom is relative, however, and contained within nature. One cannot help but dwell upon the hidden powers that produce so delicate a balance between freedom and catastrophe. For freedom of this nature is rare, and in man it is more than rare—it is unique—for he dances upon shadows, the shadows in his brain.”

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