Under the Microscope


The 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage told the story of a submarine team who were miniaturized in order to enter a scientist’s body — shrunk so small that Raquel Welch’s acting talent looked enormous by comparison. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the subplot was an attempt to keep the Russians from literally getting inside our heads, disrupting our democracy, and injecting us with tiny reality TV stars. Scary. Good thing that’s all over. I’ve always confused the movie with The Incredible Journey, another film from several years earlier about two dogs and a cat who are miniaturized and injected into a Canadian oil executive’s body in order to force him to vote for the Green Party. That wasn’t as good.

I’ve been getting into miniaturization lately, after a sponsored ad for a magnifying smartphone camera unexpectedly appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. It was an outrageous deal. They had a short-but-irresistible sales video that showed you how to take close-up pictures of your Social Security card, driver’s license, and bank account information and text them — without leaving the app! — to a number supplied with the box insert. I ordered one immediately, and since the instructions were all in Cyrillic script, I’ve been muddling by with trial and error, practicing on shrubs around the house before I move on to personal data.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the natural world has a period of spectacular excitement and then goes dormant as the days get shorter. We bear the fallow months in anticipation of that stretch of time between late March and July: the dawn choruses, the exotic migrations, the wildly fertile Junes, where it sometimes seems we’d need to actively stunt catnip, sage, mint, to keep them from growing over — where gardening becomes a democratic process and not the domain of experts, simply because plants flourish despite us, regardless of our attempts to culture or husband. But things in nature are rarely so binary: no switch is thrown; the dead months, if not a myth, are a simplification. I’ve written about that misperception before (The Very, Very Few Birds of Winter), because while it’s true the cold months lack vigor, they don’t lack activity or beauty.

Dried inflorescence of Ericameria nauseosa (rubber rabbitbrush)
Leaf of apple tree
Snow on front step

As with other cases where science verges on philosophy, it’s mostly a matter of point of view. Shift perspective and whole worlds appear, sharpen, get color. The excitement didn’t die, it just slipped dimension and we didn’t follow. We remained in the 1x world, saturated with jewel-color, a Fabergé assortment of penstemon and hyssop and lilac, an unrelenting orchestration of whistles and courtship calls, until, like a tourist shuffling into a mosque out of the bright noon sun, our eyes take time to adjust, if they ever do, to the darkness. The inscriptions, the inlay, the vegetal shafts of the vault are still there in the dim recess, we just can’t see them, and we risk turning again through the heavy doors, wondering what the fuss was all about. In the range between the 40x and 1000x magnification of my new smartphone camera, the eyes have a chance to adjust.

Who knew that the dull hard-shelled bugs that hang on the houseplants and window frames in fall, largely ignored, had fine grass-green ridges at the base of their abdomens and thorny spurs on their hindlegs? Well, I suppose someone knew — experienced scientists who have already sent in most of their personal information to the number on the box, and can move the squat tube of the photographing scope with precision. Chiropodists and lapidaries, perhaps, working in highly skilled niche-branches of natural science like Macrocyclic Philately and Tubular Gastrostomy*.

leg-of-Leptoglossus occidentalis-900
Leg of a Leptoglossus occidentalis (western conifer seed bug)

Let’s face it, to the unaided, naked eye — and most of the best things I do at my age are naked and unaided — it’s a pretty barren-looking November. Snow melts away in irregular patches and the husks of chamisa and ragged asters peek out, pale as unbleached paper. A disk of ice floats on the bird bath. Even the American robins of the previous month, who had queued up on the black pine to stand on the bird bath rim, plop in, and shimmy, are gone. But microscopically, the bristlebrush of a mountain mahogany style takes the breath away, the few leaves left on the apple after Halloween’s ghost-winds are networks of ruby cells, pretty as prize-winning roses. Snow itself, seen close up, is organic, glass-blower’s art.

Plumose style of Cercocarpus montanus (mountain mahogany)
Polycauliona bolacina (waxy firedot lichen)

It’s a work in progress, using the new device. But three lessons learned:

  • Placing the camera is like trying to shave in a hall of mirrors. Directions reverse; move one way and the target moves the other. The slightest tremor of the hand apparently moves the image area several yards from the intended subject. There is no depth of field. Lose focus on the foreground and everything is out of focus.
  • Ignore nothing. The yellow crust on a nondescript stone by the hot tub is Polycauliona bolacina, waxy firedot lichen, and no barrier reef produces coral as strange and stunning.
  • And finally, everything out there is hairy. Leaves and stems are hairy. Bugs are hairy. Rocks are hairy. Want to grow hair on a billiard ball? Don’t bother. It’s already hairy. You’re just not looking closely enough.
Leaves of Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender, ‘Munstead’)

*Our general disclaimer applies. Most terms used throughout this site are randomly sourced from the Interwebosphere, may or may not actually exist, but sound incredibly convincing. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease and has limited educational value. Please consult a trained endodontic dermatologist before accepting any statement here as fact, particularly if it’s about Raquel Welch’s acting ability.

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