I was reading an essay about Darwinian evolution and came across this bit describing a truly remarkable plant adaptation:
Under the pressures of competition, the orchid Orphrys apifera undergoes a statistically adapted drift, some incidental feature in its design becoming over time ever more refined, until, consumed with longing, a misguided bee amorously mounts the orchid’s very petals, convinced that he has seen shimmering there a female’s fragile genitalia.
This passage was referring to a flower that impersonates a female bee, thereby inducing a male bee to attempt mating with it. In his ardor he picks up pollen and then transfers it to another flower, pollinating it. This bizarre subterfuge was something that I’d not yet heard of despite being aware of such marvels in the plant world, where mimicry is a commonplace strategy. This instance, though, is more convoluted than most. (More typical is the case of one plant resembling another that’s toxic.) After setting the book aside, I briefly mused that it would be interesting to learn more about this particular orchid—orchids being a type of plant I’m very fond of (who isn’t?) but know relatively little about. And then I promptly forgot about it all.
That evening: in my chair, reading. Across the room, Dylan was in seated in front of her computer. I heard a familiar gentle exclamation of interest: a universal domestic gesture signifying that whatever was at hand was something worth imparting. As per our unstated rules about “spousal sharing,” a response to this signal is optional. But if I’m not really concentrating on something, I generally ask to hear about whatever it is.
Completely out of the blue, apropos of nothing, a friend of ours had just sent her a close-up photo of a ludicrously ornate orchid flower. At first, I didn’t even recall that I’d very recently been reading about orchids. But then, seeing the photo’s caption with the plant’s name—Ophrys apifera—I realized in a flash what was before me. “Hey! I was just reading about this plant a few hours ago!” I’d never heard of it (so far as I could recall) and had no idea what a bee orchid looked like. But there it was, in ten thousand glowing pixels. An odd coincidence? Well, bear in mind that, world wide, there are some 18,000 species of orchids in around 800 genera (of which Ophrys is one genus). One out of eighteen thousand. We then brought up onto the screen a collection of photos of other varieties of bee orchids. The following morning, I did some research.
Bee orchids are widespread throughout southern Europe, northern Africa, and Asia Minor. There are somewhere around 130 species, Ophrys apifera being one of the commonest. The group is remarkable and well-known for reproducing by way of a scheme called “pseudocopulation.” The showy flowers have slowly adapted to resemble the females of a number of species of bees and wasps. In addition—this perhaps even more implausible—the plant manufactures a sex pheromone mimicking that produced by the female insect the flower is impersonating. The male, in attempting to mate with the flower, collects little “packets” of pollen. During subsequent visits to other flowers, he inadvertently cross-pollinates them. This is, of course, the standard insect-assisted pollination scheme but with an added twist in the form of the pheromone attractant. Most species of the bee orchid have one specific pollinator and that pollinator’s sex pheromone possesses its own specific chemical signature. Pheromones are varying blends of complex organic chemicals. So this is yet another of nature’s true wonders and a real whopper: a plant that has somehow learned to produce chemicals made by animals. But the bee orchid offers marvels at a bargain, two for the price of one. How this all came to be is an evolutionary conundrum. But I’ve strayed from the point….
We saw our friend Marty not long after and I asked why he’d forwarded that particular photo. Dylan is a botanist—no mystery there. Marty isn’t a plant enthusiast, nor even a gardener. It took him a moment to even recall what he’d sent. “Oh, I don’t know. I saw it posted online, thought it was pretty cool, and figured she might be interested.” When I told him the story we had a chuckle. Adding to the strangeness is the fact that Dylan sees loads of random stuff on the web and only shares odd bits with me, knowing I really don’t need to be distracted by the oodles of trivial-but-fascinating items that pop up on her computer screen daily (thanks to the nearly irresistible draw of Facebook). But she made that distinctive little sound which, as a dutiful partner, I heed.
So that was a classic example of the specific variety of synchronous incidents that people so often encounter: a chance tidbit, an exotic word or unfamiliar historic figure—things obscure, rarely seen, previously unknown—something that pops into your life almost without notice but then shows up again almost immediately. While they are certainly curious, attributing import to such things does seem pointless. People who profess certainty that synchronicities have no meaning and are purely accidental events will scoff at the notion of accrediting them with special meaning—they’re just coincidences, despite what might seem to be extraordinary odds against their happening.
In terms of odds and probabilities, the skeptics’ main argument goes like this: With the virtually limitless possibilities for combinations of events in a complex world, it’s only natural that, every so often, things that may highly improbable will occur. Such events are to be expected from time to time and certainly have no “cosmic” significance. This is undeniably a valid argument. I agree with the premise. In the case of my one-out-of-18,000 orchid: while that figure might sound impressive, a skeptic will quickly (and correctly) point out that the bulk of those species are obscure, rare, seldom-seen plants whereas the bee orchid is widespread and well-known. This makes it far more likely that it would appear as a random item on the web. True enough. But, still, there are a lot of orchids.
To chronic skeptics, such trifling items barely merit notice. Their reaction might be nothing more than a casual, Hunh…that’s funny. On occasion I’ve witnessed “nonbelievers”—generally of the highly rational, scientific-minded personality type (which describes a fair number of my friends and acquaintances)—shrug off a synchronicity they have themselves experienced in just such a fashion. A “believer,” on the other hand, would get a real jolt had the same thing befallen them. The different reactions lie in the very definition of the concept of synchronicity: according to Jüng, the event must have personal meaning.
Someone who receives a phonecall or email from an old friend, “out of the blue,” shortly after the person was thinking about that friend—another classic synchronicity—might or might not be justified in believing that the contact represents something quite exceptional. It certainly doesn’t prove some sort of telepathic connection. Nevertheless, when it happens to you, it can seem absolutely extraordinary.
For instance, there was the time I called my girlfriend and she answered the phone. So? Well, I had dialed her number. There was no ring-tone, just silence. But after a moment I heard her voice say, tentatively, “Hello?” She had picked up her receiver at the very moment I’d dialed. To call me. (This is reputedly a not terribly rare occurrence—a lot of synchronicities involve phonecalls.) But we were both stunned. And, as lovers, just plain tickled to death.
Another broad category of synchronicities are those events lacking any particular meaning aside from just being weird—simultaneously uncanny, improbable, and completely pointless. They share a feature of having significance only to the person they happen to. Their impact might be difficult to convey to others. Everyone has a wide array of such experiences. They tend to have a completely arbitrary and capricious quality and have an disquieting effect that makes them unforgettable. The vivid memories of these can be called up at will—memories of things so implausible that they had no business happening. The strange events might not translate into verbal form, sometimes falling into a sub-category of anecdotal tales that I refer to as “Youda-hadda-been-there stories,” stories without a satisfying dénouement. For instance, if you dropped a nickel and watched it roll across the floor and come to a rest standing on edge, you would be astounded and want to tell everyone in earshot. And then would be almost as shocked to find that no one shared your astonishment. Here are two samples from my stockpile of personal experiences, (both being of the you’d-have-had-to-have-been-there variety):
This happened in the late 1990s during my long stint as a backcountry ranger. I spent many summers living in a log cabin in the wilderness and one of my duties was maintaining barbed-wire fences to block off part of the big meadow surrounding my cabin for horse pasturage. The flimsy fences would receive damage from the snowpack each winter and required continual maintenance. The following is an entry from my journal:
I finished repairing the back fence today. The last bit was the section across the river. To wrap up, I was tightening loose wires on the short stretch of fence between the river and the gate. I walked down to the river’s edge to see how that bit of fence crossing the gravel bar had held up. A very strange thing happened: I found a 2½ foot length of pressure-treated wood—a piece off of one of the fence posts, a sawed-off “splinter” roughly 2 inches in diameter. It was laying there in the meadow, essentially a piece of trash, keeping grass from growing under it. Since the thing didn’t “belong” there, without thought I picked it up and chucked it behind me, end-over-end, towards the gravel-bar (knowing it’d be washed away next spring in the flood). But this casual act turned into a breathtaking moment of perfection, absurd perfection. ◦◦◦◦◦ I flung it backwards—under-handed, while bent over at the waist—as hard as I could hoping to get it onto the gravel (about 30 feet away). But my lob overshot the gravel bar and heard it whang into the fence with a Sproi-oi-oing! and turned at the weird sound to see the still-quivering sliver of wood somehow stuck between the wires. I stood gawking as it slowly swayed to a stop. The thing was sandwiched between the bottom three of the four strands of barbed wire, straight up & down, centered perfectly with either end protruding several inches beyond a wire. (Take your left hand: hold three fingers in a position to represent three strands of a wire fence. With your right index finger held vertically, wedge it between the three fingers so that it separates the top and bottom fingers from the middle one. This is how the stick was positioned.) ◦◦◦◦◦ I Left it there as a testimony to utterly random events. A hundred people could throw 2½ foot-long sticks at a barbwire fence for a hundred years and likely never repeat this. I’m sure most people wouldn’t think anything of the deal (except that it was ha-ha funny…maybe) but for me, it had the distinctive zest of a minor miracle.
Another utterly trivial thing somewhat like this happened in 1980. I was sharing a house in Boulder, Colorado with several friends. My bedroom happened to have its own bathroom. The old toilet was one of those with a low water level in its bowl, resulting a comparatively shallow pool roughly six inches across.
One morning I was brushing my hair in front of the mirror above the sink, which was right beside the toilet. I owned a well-crafted, wooden-handled, boar-bristle brush that I was quite fond of. The brush hit a snag, leapt out of my hand, and fell in the toilet.
This was not some earth-shaking tragedy but I’d already taken a couple of pees that morning (without flushing) and the “water” in the bowl was a vibrant shade of yellow. As the brush fell through the air, I watched what seemed to happen in slow motion and “heard” myself silently shrieking Ohhhhh, NOOOOO!! The brush landed in the bowl but instead of hearing a splash, there was a wood-on-porcelain “tunk…tunktunk.” I watched this happen. And there was the brush: suspended horizontally over the yellow puddle at its narrowest point, resting on either tip. It was perched just barely above the water, tips barely extending beyond the pool’s edge. My brush was totally dry and undefiled. I retrieved it and finished brushing my hair, flat-out amazed. I told all my housemates and got funny looks in return. None of them seemed remotely impressed.
I can see that these two anecdotes may not have their intended impact. And for the very reasons I mentioned. Let me try again with another.
Like the first story, this one took place when I was a ranger stationed at the backcountry cabin. Somewhat ironically—considering the primitive nature of my work—my days were ruled by clocks. I had to make radio contact at set times, meet people at trailheads…and had to wake up in the morning. (I should at least mention that I have a strange “thing” with clocks, with a long history of weird events involving timepieces. Only two weeks before the following account, I had an eerily similar experience.) This, an entry from my 1991 journal:
The day began with another remarkable event involving my clocks. The cheap digital watch resides in my uniform shirt breast pocket, shirt hanging on the wall near the head of my bed. Its wimpy alarm doesn’t wake me unless I need it to and sort of “ask” the night before. (Can’t explain it but this almost always works; I just firmly “tell myself” that I need to hear the alarm.) Otherwise, I sleep right through it and get rudely woken by the much louder Timex clock on the shelf by my head. I recently re-set the watch’s alarm for the shortened days so it now goes off at six instead of five-thirty. Last night I re-set my old clock for six as well. ◦◦◦◦◦ I woke up in the dark and listened to the wind raking through the pines as I was returning from the dead, feeling a substantial breeze coming from the cat-door across the way. Knew that one or the other of the alarms would be going off soon. My watch does a faint beep-beep, two beeps per second with a one second pause in between. The Timex does a much louder DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO, four tones per second with a one second lapse. ◦◦◦◦◦ Now, this is just incredible, it really is: my two timepieces went off “together”—the alarm clock first, DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO—and when the one second pause began my watch kicked in with its beep-beep. The two were absolutely. Perfectly. Synchronized. DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO-beep-beep-DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO-beep-beep-DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO-beep-beep-DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO-beep-beep…. Amazingly and just ridiculously improbable. The odds of this happening are, I would say, astronomically slim. There was no overlap—they were perfectly in step, which made this kind of a big deal in my eyes. Plus, it’s not like the two devices are synchronizable; the watch is digital and I set my clock with a little pointer-hand. Why do these weird things happen to me?
©2017 by Tim Forsell draft 2 May 2017