The Compassion of Nature

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I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Last Sunday afternoon, I was fiddling around in the flower bed in front of my house when I saw yet another anole.  We have had a bunch of these little chameleon-like creatures in our yard this summer; I think the wet weather has led to an abundance of greenery, which has led to an abundance of insects, which supports a larger population of predators who eat primarily insects, including anoles.  I have seen many anoles in the past few weeks which were quite small, as if there was a baby boom among the reptilian crowd in my yard.  I don’t mind; did I mention that they eat bugs?  And they’re kind of cute and fascinating and quite photogenic.

I went inside to get my camera.  I have taken plenty of photos of the anoles in my yard, but the light was nice, and I had a few minutes, and this one looked especially striking against the large, smooth texture of the leaves of the elephant ears.  I chose the long lens, thinking that I would get a better close-up with the greater zoom.  Once I got my equipment together, I stood the requisite three feet away to get the zoom lens and auto focus to work right together.  I looked through the viewfinder, and started snapping photos.

Then, I noticed something that made this particular anole unique.  At first, I didn’t believe it.  I had to do a double-take, and then look at the screen on my camera to see if it was real.  Maybe I was just looking from a funny angle; maybe it was hidden behind a leaf or an arm or something.  But no; it was just the way I saw it.

The anole was missing a hand.

He was, well, how would he like to be called?  Was he handicapped?  Or did he prefer disabled?  That didn’t make any sense.  Clearly, this animal was quite well-abled.  Before I knew he was, um, different, I had watched him easily climb up the long stem of the elephant ear leaf.  He was not especially thin, which would have indicated that he could not keep up with the bugs which make up his diet.  He looked more mature than many of the smaller anoles I have seen in my yard recently, which means he could run deftly enough to get away from whatever considers him prey.  He was just as able as any anole I have seen.  So what was he?  Was he “differently-abled?”  No; that sounds a little condescending.  How would I describe him?  He was simply missing a hand.

What I really wanted to do was to ask him some questions.  How did he lose his hand?  Was it a dramatic escape from one of the neighborhood cats?  Did he cross into some other anole’s territory and get into a fight?  Did he get trapped between a rock and a hard place and have to choose between his hand and his life?  Or was he just born that way, with some sort of genetic mix-up which missed the cue to grow what would otherwise be at the end of his arm while he was inside his egg?

I was too shy to ask him those questions, though.  I realized I really don’t know him at all, so it seemed somehow impolite to get so personal.  I hated the fact that I was staring at him for so long.  I didn’t want him to feel awkward.  But still, I was fascinated:  how did he walk?  Was it different than the way other anoles walk?  Could he lunge so he could take his prey by surprise?  Or did he have to learn a different way to hunt after his accident, or his fight, or whatever it was that caused him to lose his hand.  He seemed willing to have me take his portrait, so I thought to myself that it would be more polite to just look at the pictures later rather than to keep gawking and wondering in the moment.  Soon enough, he spotted something that had landed a few inches in front of him on the leaf, and we both moved on.

As I think about my encounter with this anole, however, I realized I am surprised at the grace of Nature this anole reveals.  I think of Nature as a harsh, rational, survival-of-the-fittest kind of power.  The Darwinians teach us that, right?  Only the strong, healthy, and fully able survive in Nature.  Those who are weak in body, mind, or spirit are picked off by predators or simply left to starve and die alone.  The struggle to survive is the only way each species remains strong enough to carry good genetic material on to future generations.  It seems cruel to us as sophisticated, self-reflective creatures, but that is just how Nature works.

But here was an animal who had faced some kind of trauma, either in his formation or in a fight, and that trauma hadn’t killed him.  His body healed itself:  his blood clotted to keep him from losing what little liquid life force he has inside him, his antibodies prevented infection without the help of Neosporin, his skin closed over the place where his hand used to be with no stitches or Band-Aids, the muscles in his shoulder and elbow and leg strengthened to compensate for the balance and coordination he would otherwise have from his hand.  His mind taught him how to adapt.  His surroundings nurtured him until he could get the food and the shelter he needed all on his own.  Anoles are notoriously lonely beings, aggressively territorial and unlikely to socialize with other anoles, even their own young, for any purpose other than to mate.  So I don’t assume that he had the care of a mother or a father or a kind neighbor or supportive teacher to help him figure out how he was going to get along without his hand.  I doubt his insurance covered occupational therapy.  Still, Nature didn’t dispose of him like a strictly rational Darwinian would suppose.  Nature nurtured him so he could get along just fine, hand or no hand, fulfilling his function of keeping the population of insects in check in his little territory in the flower bed in front of my house.

And Nature doesn’t feel the need to put a label on this particular anole.  Nature doesn’t ask nosy questions about how he came to be so, well, abnormal.  Nature doesn’t gawk or stare at the injury or single him out in any way at all.  Nature just lets him go about his business.

I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Note:  I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family!  Click here to check them out!

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