NEWBURY -- We have long looked for life on Mars. We have recent excitement over Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter; Kepler 186-f, the ‘Earth-twin’; and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn for potential holders of life. Our excitement stems from finding one of the essential ingredients in the recipe for life: water.
It is water that reveals new life each spring in the forests of New England. As winter lifts its icy paw, snow melt fills small depressions throughout the forest floor. These now-filled depressions become one of the aptly-named heralds of spring: vernal pools.
It is mid-April and the trees have not yet leafed out, though their buds are just beginning to crack, like eyes squinting in the sun. I kneel in the damp leaf litter at the edge of a pool. I am looking for life where 6 months ago there was none.
I dip my hand net in the water and empty it into a plastic container. The mosquito larvae, always present, flick and flip their ugly, dark bodies through the water. A diving beetle swims furiously around my plastic container, the small air bubble that he carries like a SCUBA diver quickly depleting. With my hand lens I see round, fat-bodied red mites swimming in awkward circles. Copepods, period-sized and teardrop-shaped crustaceans, flit in jerky motions dragging behind them two saddlebags. These saddlebags are egg cases soon to hatch and unburden their mothers. What my small sample doesn’t reveal is the other hundreds of crustacean, worm, snail, insect, clam, frog, bird, mammal and reptile species that rely on these forest oases.
On a dead limb underwater I see something life-like. I take off my socks and shoes to wade further into the pool. At its deepest it is only halfway up my calf. The cold charges into my legs.