Vitrification

Autumn is a season for reflection. The humors slow. We are reminded of mortality, as the life around us shuts down. The maudlin huddle under blankets and hide from the change. Happy fatalists jump in the leaves and ignore it. We shouldn’t contrive a situation where certainty is ours and we wait for the change with eyes shut tight. We ought to be thinking about life instead of death, but not in the fatalists’ way. Out in the cold, in crevices and under bark, tiny creatures illustrate a better way as they face the real crux, the exposure.
As the nights cool, substances like the stored reserves of hibernating animals accumulate in the tissues of certain insects. But rather than providing energy through a long sleep, these substances will embalm their creator. If the rate of transition allows, water in the animal’s body will become an amorphous solid, a glassy ice. Glass spares all the containing structures in the body from lacerating crystals which destroy cell membranes and organs when the other form of ice takes hold. We are familiar with this process because, with less reflection than the insects, we bring the dilemma of a frozen state to our own, furry kinsmen. Motivated at once by fatalistic optimism (in the method) and insecurity (in the act itself), people have taken advantage of vitrification to postpone the development of human and animal embryos in anticipation of more favorable conditions.
In every case, resuscitation is not guaranteed. Some of the vitrified wild animals are clearly doomed. They don’t have enough of the embalming substances in their cells, or have too much water on board. Some are victims of circumstance, as the rate and depth of temperature change affects survival, all else being equal. The insects can’t bank on their potential. For all they know, when the frost takes them, they are dead. That’s all we know too. We freeze many embryos because we can’t know what’s going to happen to any one of them, only what tends to happen to a population. Life is like that. It is fuzzy on the edges, where things like viruses, self-replicating proteins, frozen beetles, and frozen embryos lie in wait to rob us of our reassuring, formal picture.
Worse, when the frozen, the ones that do survive, come back to life, it is through a completely generic influence. Heat does it. The atoms in a particular space vibrate a little faster and the bug resumes its life. The embryo begins to grow again, and barring any further mishaps, becomes a lamb or a human infant, depending on what came before it. The potentials of the process, like those of the form, fade into the landscape. Odds don’t mean much for the frozen individuals. The relationship of the odds to the individual demonstrates that the forms and processes of life aren’t special. We can’t have precious life and its illusion of prescience to hide beneath. We want it instinctively though, because it protects us from the vista tugging at our tails. Nor does the landscape recede if we write it off to fate. If we look down from our preoccupations, we see the individuals poised on vertiginous points of space and time. The location is special, but not cozy. It’s a spot of massive focus and alien potential. The view down is disturbing, but it is more accurate, and more immense than our mythology or our philosophy, if we can take it in.

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