It has taken me all of this month to figure out what to write. It often seemed like joy has been eluding me, what with the dire and painful state of so much sociopolitically in the world. It took me awhile to step back and remember just how much joy there is, all around. The Earth teems with it.
When I was a younger reader I discovered books on the topic of cryptozoology, ones by Ivan T. Sanderson on through modern authors. The lure behind the idea that there might still be fantastic beasts out there in the world to discover fueled my excitement, hope, and imagination. But finding these cryptids, if they did exist, would certainly not be easy, and I was no Newt Scamander.
However, one of the creatures the authors of these books brought up had been ‘discovered’ and scientifically recognized, despite first thought a myth by Europeans. That animal is the okapi, a half-zebra-half-giraffe animal from the dense jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The okapi stuck in my mind as something rare and miraculous, a fantastic beast that I might actually be able to see.
Years later I finally saw okapis at The St. Louis Zoo and was ecstatic. Making them even more endearing to me I noticed that their legs would often shake. They are just like me! You see, I have an essential tremor, particularly making my hands shake always. People often assume I am shaking through nervousness or coffee overload. I felt an immediate kinship to those vibrating okapi.
Not far from the okapi area of the zoo I discovered another mammal, this time one I hadn’t heard of prior: the takin. My mind immediately went to: Hey, I wonder if one of these is a Grand Moff Takin? Most people at the zoo seem to go swiftly by the okapi and the takin, off to more recognizable human fascinations like lions or the elephants. But I still enjoy standing by the takins and watching them, a warm appreciation for them based solely on their name and a Peter Cushing character.
Built around something seemingly inconsequential, how simple joy can be.
I admit I still enjoy hearing cryptozoological musings, as much as I enjoy hearing about other pseudoscientific topics from UFOs to ghosts and beyond – despite being skeptical and not taking most of it seriously. Perhaps for reasons that intersect with why I enjoy fantasy. But even still, crytozoology doesn’t have quite the lure for me as it once did, because I realize the world is certainly filled with far stranger, more interesting life.
I’m a biologist now, a microbiologist, and as Penn Jillette once explained it in an episode of Bullshit! that focused on cryptozoology: finding new species is as easy as going into one’s backyard. It’s probably even easier. There are likely undiscovered prokaryotic species on or within each of us, or right beside us this very moment. And that prokaryotic life, even if invisible and unremarked upon by most people, is of the utmost importance to us, and of the craziest variety. The life on our planet is exceptional and awe inspiring.
Joy also comes from the profound and grand. The Hebrew writer of the Psalms wrote a number of poems expressing wonder and joy at just such grandness. And they didn’t even know the tip of the iceberg of what life there is, or what incredible things life is capable of. How much more joyful we could be at knowing even grander life abides.
I’m now in the process of designing a potential course to teach: Biology in Fiction. Looking not just to how life behaves as we know it on Earth, but how it might exist elsewhere in the universe, and how it might change for us now. How biology has influenced cultures, and cultures have tried to control it.
The process of creating this course, bringing together the science and the literature and the film that I adore, is a joyful process for me. Yet the greater joy will come through the instruction, the influence that it hopefully has on the students. Who learn. Who are inspired. Joy seems to be felt most strongly when giving and passing on to another.
From the simple to the profound, from the okapi and takin to the E. coli, from the life that is here to the life that may be, from what we cherish ourselves to what we impart unto others, there is much joy.