the flowering of the atacama desert and of ideas
In 1991 it started to rain in the Atacama Desert and rain continued for several days. It hadn’t rained for 30 years. The barren earth became green and then it became a haze of pink and purple, the mountains and plains carpeted with flowers. The specialness of this event was heightened by the rarity of it. I had arrived in Chile that year and found myself there with perfect timing. In Coquimbo where I lived, roads were washed away and everyone’s roofs leaked, but the desert had burst into life. After 30 years of baked, lifeless dust, dry rocks and dead-looking thorns there was life in abundance.
I remember seeing plants spring from cracks in the bare earth; from in between the pieces of old, knurled cactus wood scattered on the desert floor; out of rocks and gravel. It was one of the most amazing spectacles on earth.
Dry thorns and sticks became bushes covered in leaves and buds; bulbs with red, yellow or pink trumpet-like flowers stood a foot high; yellow ‘copitas’ grew directly from the barren earth on short stalks; cactuses had gaudy-coloured blooms; and in rocky areas alstroemeria the same as sold by florists were in full bloom, these are the lilies of the Inkas.
I made numerous trips to the desert in flower. I got myself there by bus, friend’s car, hitch-hiking and hired car.
Walking over the desert floor I was in heaven; everybody else felt hot and were tying knots in clothing to put over their heads, and looking for the shade of giant cactuses. I didn’t feel hot because I was engrossed in the wonder of it all.
When I was driving, I stopped the car for every new clump of flowers to photograph them and identify them. The other occupants of the car were desperately trying to distract me so I wouldn’t notice any more flowers and stop again.
I particularly liked a blue flower called suspiro. My guess is that it is a wild plant of the Solanaceae family. Near to the coast with its salty air suspiro had bright blue flowers and wide fleshy leaves. I then found another suspiro growing on dry inland desert plains that had white flowers and spiny narrow leaves exuding oil (Home page picture from near Copiapo). In another place I found suspiro with pale blue flowers and intermediate leaves. This clearly showed adaptation by the same plant to different conditions.
In the glory of all the flowers before me what I saw was scientific theory. I was rethinking the natural order of recognizable categories which often have names, and marked differences within categories. What was the nature of differences within categories compared to differences between categories? Do diversity and disparity have the same origin, or are they distinct? To what degree does any discreet group extend? I walked through the desert living my theory.
These plants had undoubtedly evolved by responding to different conditions – this is called natural selection – but to what degree and how?
Can two seemingly opposing ideas both be true?
Suspiro had put in a word for evolution. But the life in abundance around me spoke of God the Creator, the One from whom all life springs and all life returns.
I made photo albums of Chilean flowers – the albums I made allowed me now to supply this website with glimpses of the Atacama Desert in flower. I also continued my research in libraries and went through many books dedicated to the classification of plants and animals.
My question was: How far does evolution go?
I learnt that evolution has three main effects on creatures:
- Structures and organs may be lost
This comes under the heading of rudimentary organs and vestigial organs. An example of this is when a limb has disappeared but a limb bud is still present attached to the skeleton. This is seen in some snakes and in salamanders. Loss of structures can happen to almost any degree, and in parasites it is extreme – some insects have been reduced to worms.
- Changes in the quality of anything can occur
Body shape, growth or reduction in overall size, fur colour, number of legs (in arthropods) and changes in physiology. All creatures are ‘plastic’ – this means changeable. The change can be almost beyond recognition, except the trained eye nearly always spots the signs of origin and DNA now confirms this.
The exaggeration of a structure can change its original purpose to a new purpose. When this trend follows through, the creature may adopt a totally new ecological niche or migrate into a different environment. For example, a leg can become a flipper gradually – seals are really sea-dogs which still bark like dogs and have dog’s teeth.
Adaptation is fundamental to life – it is inheritable change that makes colonization of new environments possible as well as survival through geological time possible. The flourishing of life and filling the earth, even dry deserts, requires the ability to adapt. Adaptation affords the avoidance of extinction.
But it is true to say that the modifications noted above can only occur in structures that already exist and which belong to creatures that are alive. Plasticity of a living thing requires the existence of the living thing, and this goes back to origin.
It came to me with the clarity of a ray of light from heaven that God did not create simple life, then let it evolve – as Charles Darwin thought; God created a specific series of complex creatures – which, by the design of their biological systems had the ability to adapt to new conditions. Creatures can evolve within set limits. Evolution does not increase complexity, what it produces is diversity.
The seeds that had lain on the dry desert floor for 30 years waiting for some moisture gave rise to the astounding spectacle of the desert in flower. The ideas in my mind as I walked and reflected, have now germinated, and I hope they will bring new life, abundance and a flowering of science.
This is my life’s work.