The Latent Greatness of Small Things

“I have a crazy, crazy love of things...I love all things, not just the grandest, also the infinitely small.”
Pablo Neruda

There are approximately half a million surface-feeding earthworms in any given acre of soil. Nature’s backhoe. Epigeic worms weave the autumn detritus, mote by mote, into the earth. Meanwhile, burrowing anecic worms force air into soil-like billows. Through simple design, earthworms thread nutrients, water, and air into life-fabricating soil. Although, it takes years and years (and years).1

Charles Darwin suggested few animals have played such an important part in history of the world, as have these “lowly organized creatures.”2

What, exactly, does he mean by lowly? A pun on the fact that they are beneath our feet? (Herein, I shall substitute “small,” less pejoration). It is important we define the terms, otherwise anything could be lowly, small.

By “small,” I mean—likely as did Darwin—not grandiose. Simply constructed, small is something mostly inconsequential to its environs, yet, in the right conditions, demonstrates surprising greatness. And by “greatness,” I mean presence.

Imagine a small, circular clay disc. Handmade, the size of a penny. Small and simple. Perhaps precious to its owner but invisible otherwise.

And yet, in the hands of a professional, like British ceramic artist. Fenella Elms,3 this small disc can be turned, angled, tilted, even nestled between other discs, and suddenly, we have movement, depth, even a narrative.

"Flow" by Fenella Elms featured in "The Latent Greatness of Small Things."
Rhythm and light at play in “Flow” by Fenella Elms. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Was there a wind? Did they stir? Who placed them so? Suddenly, this small disc is a subtle but demonstrative meditation on nature’s energy and currents.

Or behold these small, smooth flanks of pink shell. Like rosy nail beds.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The fragments have a narrative. We know a creature layered calcium carbonate, lived in it, abandoned it. Waves and sand broke it apart, filed it down. But it’s still not great.

Yet, add multiples—many, many multiples—in a completely haphazard way, and they aggregate to form place. A much larger place than it ever was as a shell. This small pink shell becomes a rosy-pink beach, a place, a location, something to experience.

Pink Beach, Bay of Islands, New Zealand. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda spent his life gesturing towards the small, compelling us to notice. A republished selection of his work Ode to Common Things collects poetry about the greatness of the mostly inconsequential, like these lines from “Ode to a Bar of Soap”:4

When I pick up
a bar
of soap
to take a closer look,
its powerful aroma
astounds me:
O fragrance,
I don’t know
where you come from,
-what
is your home town?

Environmentalist Rachel Carson, a biologist and gifted writer, called the small “a window to what matters.” In her 1962 book Silent Spring,5 Carson paid vital attention to the power of agricultural toxins at the smallest possible level:

It is only when we bring our focus to bear, first on the individual cells of the body, then on the minute structures within the cells, and finally on the ultimate reactions of the molecules within these structures – only when we do this can we comprehend the most serious and far-reaching effects of the haphazard introduction of foreign chemicals into our internal environment…The extraordinary energy –producing mechanism of the body is basic not only to health but to life the nature of many of the chemicals used against insects, rodents, and weeds, is such that they may strike directly at this system, disrupting its beautifully functioning mechanism.

Positioning our gaze at the molecular level, showing the harm of pesticides and insecticides, Carson not only noticed the small, she also left no question as to its codependency with the large. Her writing catalyzed the modern environmental movement and changed the way we view habitat dependency and human environmental responsibility.

Let’s notice the small. The seemingly insignificant. Let’s be affected by the microcosms which, in the words of Polish poet and Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, “occupy a space only be charitably be called a spot.”

From Szymborska’s poem “Microcosmos:”

They don’t even have decent innards.
They don’t know gender, childhood, age.
They may not even know they are – or aren’t.
Still they decide our life and death.

Let’s notice the snails, the earthworms, the soap. What current, place, or life lies therein? What latent greatness can be ignited? What single beginnings can be sparked?

Of our beloved, hardworking worm, Carson echos Darwin: “Of all the larger inhabitants of the soil, probably none is more important than the earthworm.” Carson’s minute focus, unfortunately, makes our beloved earthworm rather large, but it retains greatness.6