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Cheryl Hughes: Adaptability

In the mid 1970’s, while I was attending WKU, I had a roommate named Polly Hume.  She was, and is, hands down the most positive person I have ever known.  It was on our apartment refrigerator that I first read the words “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  The quote was on a poster Polly taped to the refrigerator door.

For a long time, I was frustrated by these positive sorts of human beings.  Although they were pleasant to be around, I judged them as slightly naïve people who just didn’t understand what was really going on around them.  Time would prove I was wrong in this assessment.

If you are ever fortunate enough to have someone like Polly in your life, one of the first character traits you will notice they have is adaptability.  They have the ability to make a Plan B, to spin on a dime and give you nine cents change, to put the monkey wrenches safely back into the toolbox, and march ahead into the unknown.  Adaptability is a survival technique that humans and animals alike have implemented for millennia to insure the continuation of the species.

Last week, my fourth-grade granddaughter worked on a Science assignment that included a section on animals and how they adapted to their surroundings in order to survive.  The source material brought up how only animals who were able to survive their not-so-friendly environments by finding ways to adapt to the situation were the ones that lived long enough to reproduce.  In doing so, they reproduced the adaptable gene, and that gene carried on down through the generations until we have the animals with the unique characteristics that are alive today.  

The cuttlefish has 3 layers of skin, called papillae.  It can make itself look like coral or stone, thus avoiding predators.  The Viceroy butterfly (Kentucky’s state butterfly) mimics the coloration of the Monarch butterfly that is poisonous to birds—they avoid it like the plague. The only thing that distinguishes one from the other is the extra stripe that outlines the Viceroy’s wings.  

The Arctic wolf lives at the top-most timber line in Arctic North America and Greenland.  It is the only solid white wolf in the world, matching the frozen tundra in which it lives.  It grows a second coat of fur in the coldest winter months, and its blood vessels heat the blood leaving the paws as newly heated blood enters the paws, giving it the ability to walk easily on frozen ground.  (Look at me, I’m smart as a fourth-grader.)

We can learn a lot from animals, and many of us have.  I don’t know if you’ve ever had friends or family that have no idea how to work around a plan that doesn’t go according to plan, but if you haven’t, you can count yourself very lucky.  If you do have those people in your life, you know how maddening it can be to watch someone you care about come to an abrupt halt and refuse to move because their plans didn’t come to fruition.

One of my favorite stories about the consequences of inadaptability is THE ZAX by Dr. Seuss.  

There is a North travelling Zax and a South travelling Zax who run square into one another.  Neither will move out of the way in order to let the other pass, because the North traveling Zax has never travelled in any direction but North, and the South traveling Zax has never stepped foot in any direction but South.  The pictures show the two Zax standing toe to toe throughout the changing of the seasons.  They are heaped in fall leaves, covered in deep snow, but still neither will budge.

You know what happens?  Life goes on around them.  A new highway is built through the area, complete with a bridge going over and around the two Zax.  It is called the Zax By-pass.  And that’s exactly what happens to us if we refuse to adapt.  We are by-passed.

I believe the most important survival trait humans have is adaptability, although it would be really nice to have that foot-warming thing the Arctic wolf has going on…especially this time of year.



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