A slug’s life, and other mysteries

One of the first things to evaporate when you’re on an extended vacation/road trip is the certainty about the date and the day of the week. This doesn’t mean you’re clueless, lost in time, detached from reality and just bumping into random objects like a dumb brute who has eaten too many fermented berries. I’m not deranged. And I will tell you now: I am pretty darn sure that it’s Wednesday the 31st. (Extra credit: Of July.) But I have to labor a bit to seize these data points. I have to think about it, searching recent and future events for temporal milestones. On vacation one becomes akin to a bird that knows only that the days are long and warm, the worms abundant in the soil, the thistle seeds ready to be nibbled (or whatever it is that birds do instead of going to the supermarket).

The other day on a hike we saw a slug crawling across the path. Three feet away: another slug. Were they siblings? Friends? Were they slugs of the opposite sex, destined by random chance to encounter one another and — hideous though it may be to contemplate — mate? It is never entirely safe to ruminate on the lives of humble beasts, because you can find yourself struggling with some basic philosophical questions. Such as, to return now to the slugs: Why? What is the point?

Imagine you are a slug and one day some creature comes along and eats you. What kind of life is that??? Where’s the narrative?

They say man has dominion over the Earth. Whoever said this hasn’t seen my yard lately. Which is something I think about a lot on vacation, especially when staying somewhere that has sprinklers on timers. Back home the vines may be attempting to tear down the house. I envision the vegetation having gone on a two-week rager, the bindweed completely out of control, smothering the ornamentals and leaving empty beer cans everywhere.

There is nothing automated about my yard at home, other than the automation that is life itself – its bursting vitality, compulsion to replicate, mindless invasiveness of every niche in the ecosystem. Is life just a machine? We know it’s just chemistry, the arrangement of molecules in a metabolic system, energy in and waste out, all driven by the astonishing code, the information itself, the owner’s manual in the glove compartment of every cell. It’s too much for anyone to have dominion over – mostly we just find something to grab and then hold on for dear life.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · July 28, 2013