TRYING TO DEFINE LIFE one evening, and concentrating especially on the sharks and fishes I had observed as a child and later in the Red Sea, my thoughts for a time drifted to Paco’s goats, and then to the Pennines otter. I recalled a recent encounter with Tom, a cougar at London’s Regent’s Park Zoo. He was aggressive toward all his keepers, but he seemed to find in me a kindred spirit. Tom and I had quickly become firm friends. The keepers, amazed that he would wait for my visits, purring loudly as soon as I came into view, allowed me to go behind the safety fence so that I could scratch him through the bars.
Thinking about him, I wondered: What could create such a bond between a man and an animal? Of course, I could find no answer, not then, anyway.
Without volition, my thoughts returned to the question I had recently asked myself: What is life? For more than an hour I tried without success to find an acceptable definition. Then, sipping at a cup of tea, I realized that life cannot be defined, because it has a quality that is the inheritance of all living things. That quality is uniqueness, personality. It occurred to me then that all animate things are distinct and individually separate entities; although they may belong to the same species and have been genetically structured so that they behave according to a general norm, they express themselves in highly individualistic ways.
Such individuality, I had come to believe, was one of the main distinguishing features of life. I still believe this today, and I am convinced that each living organism has its own special spark that stamps it as one of a kind. This uniqueness, I have decided, extends beyond the individual’s behavior and down even to its physical shape. I was at first thinking of sentient beings, but after pondering the matter, I concluded that even such supposedly non-sentient living forms as trees reflect distinctive “personalities.” Now I know that no matter how long or hard one looks, one will never find two identical trees of the same species. Even more, one will never find two identical leaves on the same tree.
Such an approach to the study of life would have horrified any one of my professors had I cared to articulate my thoughts in their presence. My concepts would probably have been branded as simplistic, unscientific nonsense. Nevertheless, I held fast to my ideas, although I abandoned the attempt to define life, for I concluded that nothing of real value would arise from such a “definition.” I began instead to think in terms of character. Life, I felt, could not be defined, but it could be characterized.
Looking back, I suspect that I had been leaning for some time toward such a concept of life. In fact, when I began to write my mandatory thesis — which was on the stickleback fish — I had at first begun to follow the traditional babble-speak of science. But, suddenly, I rebelled, recalling the past eagerness with which I had taken to writing, and remembering — nay, hearing again inside my head — the words of Miss Wilks: “You must always remember, Ronald, that a writer’s goal, indeed his duty, is to communicate ideas and meanings clearly and in a manner understandable to all reasonably educated persons.”
Two wars had driven my tutor’s words into some deep recess of my mind, but now I could no longer bring myself to write in the scientifically approved manner; I could no longer understand for instance, why it was necessary to talk and write about sexual dimorphism among raptors when what was meant was size difference between male and female birds of prey.
I could not then, nor can I now, relate to statements such as the following, which I have taken from a modern textbook: “Reproduction can be defined broadly as the extension of living matter in space and time. The self-perpetuating importance of this process is clear, for the formation of new living units makes possible the replacement and addition at every level of organization.”
This definition of life may be acceptable for a chosen scientific elite, but it is so convoluted and so clinical that it loses all meaning for most people. The use of “units” and living “matter” to describe the vibrant world of nature suggests to me that the writer was not aware of the wonders of a bird, or of a tree, or of an animal, or even of a human mammal. It was that kind of thinking that caused me to rebel and to write my paper in prose.
My data were excellent, said my tutor after he had read the paper, but he could not accept the thesis until it was “properly written in a scientific way.” That did it! I made no comment. I left the paper on his desk, and I walked out of his office and away from academia, never to return.
“The Green Trees Beyond” (c) 1994 By R.D. Lawrence ISBN 0-8050-1297-4
“The Green Trees Beyond” (c) 2021 Centenary Re-release as an e-book