I have long been fascinated by lightning bugs. Several nights this week I sat on my back porch, mesmerized by one of nature's most interesting light shows. Lightning Bugs are miraculous insects, carrying their own light source by way of a chemical reaction that they create themselves. It was not just the miracle of the fireflies, though, but the absence of man-made sounds that made me smile those nights on my porch. Though there were plenty of sounds of nature, the harsh, abrupt, often annoying sounds made by humans and their machines could not be heard at that late hour.
Earlier that same day, a bicycle ride took me through rural Huntingdon County. As the wind blew in my face, I was struck by the sweet smells of the clover family and later by the cool, moist air along Spruce Creek. That humid air could be felt as much as it could be smelled. The next day, I had the pleasure of visiting Brother John Kerr at Saint Bernadine's Monastery near Newry to talk about their sustainability and environmental stewardship initiatives. As we walked through the stunning grounds and gardens, I looked eastward and saw the end of Dunning Mountain. Most of the ridge is covered in trees, but where soil never developed, large fields of Tuscarora Sandstone boulders litter the mountainside. The mountain does not look much different than it would have long before man set foot in the valley.
Folded by crustal collisions that occurred a quarter billion years ago, these mountains are stubs of what were once much larger and more spectacular highlands. Despite their smaller scale, they remain a scenic treasure, a source of clean air and high quality water and a vibrant habitat for a diverse collection of flora and fauna. This flood of different sensory experiences – the smells, the sounds, the sights, the feelings – made me think about a bigger picture point, that the Earth itself is a miracle and an oddity. It is too often taken for granted. Astronomers have concluded that Earth-type planets are rare indeed, for the conditions that make an environment like ours is unusual. As Goldilocks has so often been quoted, we need something "just right" to make the conditions for life as we know it. In our own system, we are the solitary planet that supports advanced life, the inner planets being too hot, the outer ones too cold.
Our Goldilocks planet has a temperature range that allows water to exist most frequently as a liquid, one of the keys to the evolution of larger plants and animals. Yet we have a rather cavalier attitude about the planet, locally and around the world. Too often, our peaceful firefly-filled evenings are shattered by the din of a motorcyclist that has altered his mufflers. Mountainside vistas are spoiled by a poorly planned development or an obtrusive billboard. The smells of summer are too frequently overcome by a smoldering burn barrel.
Those seem like odd things to do to a planet if it really is a one in a million oddity.
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