The long and short of it
The life-span of an organism, whether it is a plant or an animal, is the longest period over which the life of that organism may extend. It is the period of its existence between its birth and its death.
We call this duration of time its longevity.
No living thing can exist or stay in one physical state or condition permanently. Every organism passes through four stages in life—birth, growth and development, aging and death.
Though organisms have built-in mechanisms that maintain, repair and restore to good working condition whatever part gets weakened, broken down or damaged during their lifetime, substances composing each cell, organ or system eventually fail at some point. When that happens, an organism begins to weaken, becomes sick and eventually dies.
Regardless of how long or short the life-span of a plant or animal is, death is an immutable law of Nature. All that is made is unmade and all that is born dies in the end, as surely as morning falls into the dark embrace of night.
The animal with the longest life-span is a mollusk. The Arctica islandica, the ocean quahog, is an edible clam with a life span of 405 to 410 years.
Bowhead whales live to be 200 years old or more. The tuatara, a reptile endemic to New Zealand, lives from 100 to 200 years old. Galapagos giant tortoises have a life expectancy of 190 years. The domesticated common carp called koi that you often see in Japanese water gardens are surprisingly durable, living up to 200 years. Macaws, those long-tailed and colorful parrots from South America, live up to 100 years in captivity while elephants attain a maximum life-span of about 90 years.
On the other hand, rabbits live up to six years, guinea pigs four years, chameleons and mice one year, dragonflies four months and houseflies four weeks.
Mayflies have the shortest life-span of any organism on earth, their existence lasting only 24 hours. Mayflies spend most of their lives as nymphs. Their one and only purpose in life is to reproduce. At the appointed hour, mayflies form swarms that congregate in the air and do some mad dirty dancing over the surface of a body of water. One last dance and then it’s good-bye!
Annuals are plants that live for one growing season. The shortest-lived plants are summer or spring annuals living only for a few weeks. These annuals will germinate, grow, flower, produce seeds and then die.
Most vegetables fall under this category. Biennials require two years to complete a life cycle. Perennials, such as trees, live three or more years. Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are the longest-lived of all organisms, living to a very ripe old age of 5,000 years.
The oldest known living individual tree in the world is the Methuselah tree, a stunted and gnarled bristlecone pine that flourishes on the wind-swept, rock-strewn slope of the White Mountains of California. At more than 4,600 years old, it was already a sapling when the Egyptians were building the pyramids.
Other long-lived trees include yews, spruces, figs and olives.
The average life-span of man is anywhere from 65 to 90 years.
Whether long or short, the length of time we spend living does not matter. In the end, it is our deeds that define us, that tell who we were and what we have been.
It is the quality of the seeds we leave behind us that will determine whether there will be joy or grief in the harvest fields of the future. It is what we have done in our lifetime, our achievements, our legacy, which will outlive us, enduring well beyond the confines of physical space and real time.
What would you rather be? The mayfly whose one brief shining moment of glory ends in the shortest of meetings and matings? Or the mahogany, which took hundreds of years to rise above the forest canopy yet dies in the span of one day, felled by the blows of a woodcutter’s axe?
Like the moth, punch-drunk with the lust for the light fantastic, I would rather have half the longevity but twice the fun! Rather than simmer in the slow boil of conformity and convention, I prefer to burn, burn, burn in the foolish fire of passion and desire!
Although it produces the world’s largest single flower, the Southeast Asian parasitic plant Rafflesia arnoldii has very small roots and stems. Deriving all of its sustenance and nutrition from the roots and stems of other host plants, the rafflesia has absolutely no need for leaves and chlorophyll. Its fetid and vulgar flower grows to the immense size of a washtub—up to a meter in diameter—and weighs as much as 7 kilos.
I am like the rafflesia, lacking strong roots and stems and leaves but, unlike Shakespeare, I do not “beweep my outcast state, trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, and look upon myself and curse my fate.”
All my life I strove to rise above my limitations, tried very hard to live the life of the tide, assaulting beaches and shores, tirelessly, relentlessly, but each time, all the time, with this one burning intention in my mind—to make my highest mark ever!
My father’s last exhortation was for me to produce a black orchid of my own creation. I ask no more from God than to be given the chance to bear that one single flower—whether orchid or rank, reeking rafflesia—for which I will be remembered.
The writer is the academic supervisor at Marian School of Quezon City and curator of the school’s Museum of Rocks and Shells. E-mail him at [email protected].