An Occassional Reminder of Magnificence

This morning, the morning of George Washington's birthday, the residents of the Greater Cleveland area were treated to one of nature's most astounding sights- a burst of light as the morning sun's rays wildly illuminated all branches and wires coated with ice and snow.

This is a rare treat, and only occurs when several events in nature come together at just the same moment.
The first condition is that it has to be winter, since all depends on ice and light.  The second condition is that it has to be cold enough to freeze water to ice, but not to cold to force precipitation into snow.   At just this right temperature in sky and on ground, a sleety, slightly wet, freezing rain can fall, and on hitting branches and wires turn to ice.  If the conditions are just right, a smooth coating of ice will cover these round branches and wires.  We had such perfect conditions in Cleveland on Sunday night the 20th, but we were missing one final element, sunshine.

Last night, the 21st, we got a coating of snow over the ice, transforming the background to the ice-encrusted branches to a fresh, bright, white appearance.

This set the stage for the final element to appear during the dawn of the 22nd, a bright, blazing sun in a deep and perfectly blue sky.

Put it all together, and we were treated to an astonishing site this morning outside of the windows of our homes, cars, and offices.  Against the stark white background of the earth, and the azure blue of the sky, every branch and wire blazed with a light that could not shine any brighter.  The color of the blaze is white, but a white that carries the intensity of the sun.  It is striking to think that on any sunny day, the air carries light of this intensity, but rarely do we get to see its full blare unless the right material catches it, and holds it for us to see.

And that is just what these ice-covered branches and wires have done this morning, they can catch the morning sun's rays and hold them, seeming to concentrate them, so that we get to see a very intense slice of the sun's power without being overpowered.

The fact that the light is held by branches offers another treat, the chance to see the full network of a tree's branches in their full glory.  It turns out that all branching networks of life share a similar shape, a geometry known as fractals.  Fractals are designs of lines that repeat themselves up and down the scale.  So a web of large arteries has the same shape as the web of smaller arteries they flow into, and as the web of capillaries they flow into.

These fractal networks are the shape of life itself, and are seen in the patterns of tree branches, the blood vessels of our body, and the network of air tubes of the lung.  In fact, if you are looking at a glowing tree today, imagine if you could cut the trunk at its base, hold it upside down by the end of the cut trunk, and see the branches branching downward instead of upwards.  You would be seeing a very close representation of the branching lung.

Another observation- all life requires energy to operate, and all energy for all life on land comes from the sun.

So this morning, we get a fleeting glimpse of the magnificent improbability of life.  We get to see the power and beauty of sunlight on branches that normally cannot hold such light long enough for us to see it.  And, the light illuminates the underlying structures of life's networks, the shape of networks inside all living organisms.

I learn to affirm
Truth's light at strange turns of the mind's road,
wrong turns that lead
over the border into wonder.... 
by Denise Levertov

So, I hope you too got to see this extraordinary sight this morning, a rare treat.

Dr. Arthur Lavin

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