Monday, September 14, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 8

1884 Button steam engine; Museum of FireFighting; Nebraska City

Appreciating Varieties of Evolution

"Life," writes Loren Eiseley, Nebraska's latter day Thoreau, "is multitudinous and emergent in the stream of time." Considering the evolution of flowering plants, Eiseley explains,
"The true flower - and the seed that it produced - was a profound innovation in the world of life. In a way, this event parallels, in the plant world, what happened among animals. Consider the relative chance for survival of the exteriorly deposited egg of a fish in contrast with the fertilized egg of a mammal, carefully retained for months in the mother's body until the young animal (or human being) is developed to a point where it may survive. The biological wastage is less - and so it is with the flowering plants. [...] The true flowering plants (angiosperm itself means 'encased seed') grew a seed in the heart of a flower, [...] but the seed, unlike the developing spore, is already a fully equipped embryonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food. [..] The ramifications of this biological invention were endless. Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. [...] The well-fed, carefully cherished little embryos raised their heads everywhere."
Reading Eiseley, I'm struck by how applicable the language he uses to elucidate plant evolution - innovation, wastage, development, invention - is to the maturation and proliferation of human technology. Our machines of steel and plastic are, like the angiosperms, natural and transient shapes of life's eternal striving; they are imperfect adaptations of the moment.

Antique Tractor; Mayhew Historical Village; Nebraska City

We humans are foolishly arrogant, and often conceive of ourselves as the zenith of physical evolution. The sacred books of our species' major religions claim that we are "made in God's image," and, because most folks are literal-minded, unimaginative, or loathe to admit their own cosmic insignificance, that claim is usually understood to mean that God looks like us, and that we look like God. That's a shame, because the claim's power is metaphorical; humanity is "made in God's image," as is the flower or the carpenter bee or the black bear. For all of these species and, indeed, for God, evolution rolls on.

Humans are unable to outwardly observe our continuing development because we are too close to it, and too short-lived a species. Nevertheless, it is happening. Our technological shifts are the most apparent evidence of this ceaseless process. And what technological transitions each modern human is witness to! Like the growth of a child to a parent, the metamorphosis appears a slow, steady progression, but a retrospective survey reveals an astonishing pace. I periodically marvel at the evolution of computer and video games in (roughly) my own lifetime, from the home version of "Pong" to "Halo," but what of the computers themselves or, for that matter, the Internet?

Consider, for a moment, the technological, political, and social revolutions undergone by our country during Mike Bauer's tenure with the Nebraska City Fire Company #1 and the Great Western Fire Company #1. Bauer joined the company in 1865, at the close of the American Civil War. At that time, "bucket brigades," lines of volunteers passing leather buckets from hand to hand, were the primary way of combating blazes. Bauer climbed the fire fighter ranks, from engineer, to foreman, to chief, and served the growing town through the Spanish-American War, the First World War, and the federal introduction of Prohibition and women's suffrage, in 1920. During this time, the fire department's methods evolved from the "bucket brigade," to horse-drawn pumps, to steam-powered pump engines (like the Button engine; pictured above), to, finally, gasoline-motor pumper trucks (like the 1926 Seagrave pumper; pictured below). All of this change, in Bauer's 67 years of active service! It's a happy wonder to contemplate!

1926 Seagrave Pumper Engine; Museum of FireFighting; Nebraska City

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

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