The Fish Tank

I was 12 years old, in my grade six class. It was a sunny, baseball kind of day that tugged at me impatiently from outside the long, horizontal blinds. We were busy with a science unit on microscopes: learning how to prepare slides, and looking at various pre-made ones. I remember seeing plant cells for the first time; I remember pricking our finger to look at blood cells. Actually, in truth, the part about pricking our finger may be a fictional add-on due to aging, but from that day, one mind-blowing memory cannot be doubted. It is as vivid to me now as it was then.

I was never a child that saw rules as hard boundaries. At some point during our lesson, while the class was abuzz; kids struggling with microscopes (which are finicky things), showing each other what they were looking at, being fascinated by slides of root cells, and strands of their own hair, I decided to walk over to the classroom fish tank to make a microscope slide from a drop of the fish tank’s water. We had been talking about single-cell animals and here at the back of the room seemed like the most obvious place to see some. The tank was always a yellowish green colour. We loved to shake the fish food and watch them eat, and no one really took the ‘once a day’ feeding admonition to heart, so the fish were generally overfed. Looking back, I’m sure they were not the healthiest of classroom pets. Kids constantly tapping on the glass had probably left them psychologically damaged, as well.

I took an eye dropper of water back to my seat, put a drop on a slide then covered it with the little square piece of glass – the slip. I fixed the slide in the clips, put my eye to the lens, adjusted the mirror to shine a strong light, and began to focus. I saw blurry motion, focused a little more, then, boom, a frightening and incredible garden of delights appeared. The water was teeming with life; little microbes, paramecium with rows of waving hairs, single cells with long flagella. They were swimming through my small focal spot like they had the depths of an ocean around them. Within minutes, the class lesson had changed, as everyone wanted to see what I was yelling about and, and began to make their own fish-water slides.

And that was the day that my view of the world changed. I realize now that the sight of those little tiny creatures had broken some kind of illusion that would never really return. After more reading, and many more microscopic discoveries, I realized that I lived in a world where perspective and size meant something to reality. There wasn’t one world out there, there were countless worlds; there were as many ways of being alive on this planet as could be imagined. And every way of being alive meant a very unique and new way of experiencing life. What was it like to be a paramecium? Were they aware? Were they conscious? The earth sprang to life around me in the most profound way. Surrounding me were not only the plants and animals I saw every day, but I knew now that every single square millimetre was covered in living microbes. Humans walked about, breathed, touched things, ate things, slept, literally covered in mites, fungal spores, bacteria – we existed in a cloud of life, unseen, and, unless we got sick, rarely thought of. This was their world.

Even our egoistic illusion of separation breaks down very quickly when we consider our own bodies. It is estimated that of the 100 trillion or so cells that comprise our body, a full 90 trillion – 90%! – are not ‘our’ cells; they are bacteria. Because they are smaller, they take up less space. All the bacteria in our body would make a small 2 kg bag. Yet, they are essential for our life. From our evolutionary origin, bacteria were integrated into our being. Every one of our own cells contains small organs called mitochondria, little power-producing, sausage-shaped mini-creatures, each with their own DNA distinct from our cellular DNA. At some point in life’s history, the ancestor of these once independent mitochondrial cells was swallowed by another primordial single-cell creature and instead of being digested, mysteriously began the journey towards symbiotic coexistence. So from the core of our being, we are symbiotic with the microbial world. And although the human ego likes to draw a hard boundary around itself (as a distinct subject, a soul) and another hard line around its container body (as a separate individual), in truth, we are a fluid boundary; our separateness is an illusion of perspective. If we need oxygen to live, then in what sense can we say we exist ‘in here’ and oxygen exists ‘out there?’ If the molecules that our body needs from food are right now out in the world, and we need to continuously find them and bring them into our bodies every single day, or die, then how can we conceive of ourselves as not those molecules? And if the microbes in our body, digesting our food and assisting with our metabolism are necessary for our survival, then they are not simply hitching a ride on ‘us’ – they are us, as much an any other cell.

And yes, there are microbes that do us harm, but this is no more surprising than realizing that there are poisonous plants, or animals that would eat us, or that gravity can not only help us live but can be the cause of our death if we fall. The world is not only engineered for holding our bodies intact – we are in constant flux. Countering our life force that wants to maintain our integral form – to hold our mind and body together for a century or so, there is an equally constant entropic force that strives towards dissolution. This is the two faces of Kali, the yin and the yang. And rather that succumb to the ego’s horrified panic that this should be so, we should accept and ride this world like a surfer; joining our movements to match and balance the wave. We don’t just live in a world of viruses and microbes – we are the world of microbes. Let’s do our very best to counter their attempts to dissolve our form, but always with the realization that they will have the last say. Like concentric ripples that mark the spot where the stone fell into the pond, every gravestone in every cemetery marks a place where the microbial world reclaimed what was always itself anyway.

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