The Infinity of Smallness by Judy Grigg Hansen

“It doesn’t look like there are any wildflowers out there,” my husband said, surveying the meadows by the side of the road, as we drove into Idaho’s Castle Rocks State Park on May 14 for a wildflower walk. I had to agree that our chances of seeing wildflowers looked pretty dim as it had been unseasonably cold and there were no splashes of color in the meadows. However, when we gathered in a grassy area with the other walkers, Park Director Wallace Keck told us that 49 different wildflowers had been seen already that year.

Blue mustard being held (Photo by Judy Hansen)

In fact, Keck told us to look down by our feet and see how many wildflowers we could find before we started out. As we peered at the grass by our feet, our eyes magically opened to a miniature world of beauty in the grass at our feet. We found spring draba, a member of the mustard family that has eight miniscule white petals that Thumbelina princesses could use to decorate their hair. Slightly larger were the delicate lavender blossoms of the blue mustard.

Microsteris gracilis (Photo by Wallace Keck)

My favorites were the microsteris, the smallest of the phloxes at the park, and blue-eyed Marys, which sport two blue petals and two white petals. The ranger told us that tiny insects suck nectar from and pollinate these miniature flowers. Now I was hesitant to take a step, as I might crush some delicate little kingdom thriving in the grasses at my feet.

Blue-eyed Mary at Castle Rocks (photo by Wallace Keck)

A few days later, with my thoughts on mini-kingdoms, I imagined being a rabbit as I walked along the Shoshone Falls trail. The sagebrush became a forest of trees where shade was available, and the rocks were hills and lookout towers. When I got home, I imagined being an ant in my front flower garden, nesting under a fuchsia-colored lily or a bright orange poppy. I might think everyone lived underneath such a riot of color. I would probably be aware of the marigolds and petunias beyond the lilies and maybe even of the yard across the sidewalk and possibly of the neighborhood beyond. It gets harder to imagine the ant knowing about the world of the city or the fields of corn and sugar beets outside the city limits, to say nothing of other cities and oceans and deserts. Likewise, our universe might be a much larger and more diverse place than we currently imagine it.

When I was growing up, we were taught that the atom was the smallest type of matter in the universe. Now, scientists who study quantum mechanics have identified more than 200 subatomic particles, including bosons, baryons, and pentaquarks. I cannot help but wonder if these unimaginably small particles are also made up of even smaller particles, kind of like Russian matryoshka or nesting dolls, each holding a smaller and smaller kingdom.

What then are the limits of smallness, or largeness, for that matter? When do we get to the smallest small thing? How can we possibly perceive it? What are the limits of outer space or universes or worlds beyond our knowing? It somehow seems easier to imagine the infinity of space than to imagine infinitely smaller particles or kingdoms. Maybe our perspective is as limited as the ant’s only in an inverse way.

Copyright May 29, 2011

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About Judy Grigg Hansen
I write poetry and nonfiction, and I am passionate about the people, places, and wildflowers of Idaho and the Northwest.

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