Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Everything is connected

Wascana Lake is very still this morning,  Through the mist, the water looks like an old tray that has lost part of its silver, only reflecting the sky and the shore imperfectly.  The trees are dreams of trees, still and aetherial. It is ironic that the beauty of this atmospheric morning, like the beauty of the pink penny sunsets we've been getting this summer, is brought to us by smoke from forest fires. Like the connection between the Rocky Mountain uplift and the Badlands almost five hundred miles away,  both the smoke and the beauty it creates remind us of how intriguingly and strongly earth is knit together.  As if climate change and our brutal summer weather hasn't made this clear.  As if COVID-19 hasn't been about human interconnections.  I'll write about that next week; this week, I want to think about some of the ways the natural world embodies our interconnections.

Supported by the "wood wide web," trees act as a collective.  Suzanne Simard first identified these connections when she used radioactive carbon to measure the flow and sharing of carbon between individual trees and species.  The web is made of micorrhizal fungi that grow amongst tree roots--I have seen these white threads in the soil beneath the fir in my front yard.  Trees provide some nutrients to the fungi while the fungi carry messages and energy to other trees. Simard, who teaches at the University of British Columbia, discovered that "when paper birch saplings were weeded out from clear-cut and reseeded plantations [of Douglas fir], their disappearance coincided with first the deterioration and then the premature deaths of the planted Douglas fir saplings among which they grew" (Underland 88). 

The interconnections between the birch and the fir show that trees are altruistic.  But trees don't confine their altruism to their in-group, like so many human beings; rather they form non-hierarchical networks. It turns out that the Douglas fir trees were receiving more photosynthetic carbon (a building block of a tree's energy) from the paper birch saplings than they were contributing to a network that connected as many as forty-seven other trees.  The forestry officials who were weeding out the birch saplings thought the birch were competing with the Douglas fir for resources, because that's how human beings would treat limited resources--by competing for them.  But it turns out that the firs were benefiting from a complex exchange.  Trees' altruism also shows that they think ahead:  "adult" trees help struggling saplings so that when they fall from old age or a freak storm, another tree will be there to fill in the canopy.  Some aging trees will divest themselves of their resources even before they die.  Trees are communal, growing more successfully in groups, though their "crown shyness" keeps them from edging into one another's space.  

Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland, one of my favourite books, visits another student of the wood wide web, Merlin Sheldrake, and susses out the implications of Simard's and Sheldrake's research: "Our growing comprehension of the forest network asks profound questions:  about where species begin and end, about whether a forest might best be imagined as a super-organism, and about what 'trading', 'sharing' or even 'friendship' might mean between plants and, indeed, between humans" (98). We could learn something from the trees, particularly in COVID-time.  Where does our well-being begin and end when a virus is surging?  Does "freedom" really mean that I can take risks in our highly connected world with another person's health?  And it turns out that forests' fungal networks allow them to be more resilient in the face of the challenges created by our human actions.

Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass is a book everyone should read.  As a botanist, a member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and a woman, she brings a rich Indigenous and feminist perspective to her practice of science.  It's a poetic and hard-headed and critical book--all at the same time--and an absolute joy to read.  She's brutally honest about the way humans are fouling our own nests, but is also clear about the values we need to think about the natural world with more realism and care.  Like Skywoman, Kimmerer's mythical ancestor, we need to recognize that reciprocity characterizes a good relationship with nature.  Nature gives us her riches, but we must also realize that we need to give back to her the care and knowledge nature has freely given us.  

Because I feel I am on shaky ground, possibly appropriating Kimmerer's voice and knowledge, let me simply quote her:  “When Skywoman arrived here, she did not come alone.  She was pregnant.  Knowing her grandchildren would inherit the world she left behind, she did not work for flourishing in her time only.  It was through her actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrant became Indigenous.  For all of us, becoming Indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.”  For the first peoples, land "was everything:  identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us.  Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground.  It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or told."  How radical she is!  We owe the land something and the land is not simply a commodity.  We also owe something to the future.  As Kim Heacox wrote in this morning's Guardian, no government has a Department of the Future.  Why not?

But here I'm talking about connections within nature.  In her essay, "The Three Sisters," Kimmerer writes about the plants that have secured human thriving in North America since time out of mind:  corn, squash and beans.  You could plant them in separate rows, but you get more produce if you plant them together in a hill, something Indigenous peoples have long known. Kimmerer sees clearly written in them the lessons of reciprocity.  The corn comes up first, and its stalks provide a structure for the beans to wind onto, though they manage not to get in one another's way.  Corn roots are shallow, so it takes the first rain, but the bean roots wait for water to sink a little more deeply.  Later, the squash leaves spread on the ground, catching all the sunlight they can while shading the ground beneath them so that there's plenty of water for the three plants. Then they do a little chemistry shuffle.  All plants need nitrogen but can't use the rich supply in our air.  So the beans cooperate with Rhizobium bacteria in the soil.  The bacteria can make the nitrogen usable, but it needs an oxygen-free place for the exchange..  The roots of the beans willingly oblige; they create oxygen-free nodules where the Rhizobium can do its work and the bacteria give part of that to the bean.  Both work together to create a soil that's rich in nitrogen that all the plants need. Above ground and underground:  it's reciprocity "all the way down."

Bill and I visited Yellowstone in 2019, when we still thought of holidays.  There I learned about how the re-introduction of wolves to the park between 1995 and 1997 saved the landscape.  Wolves had been hunted to extinction in the park in the 1920s, upsetting some important interconnections between landscape and animals. Since the disappearance of the wolves, banks and streams, flora and fauna had been nearly destroyed by elk herds that grew without any predators.  Without wolves, the elk herds lived near water, where they ate much of the vegetation, including trees. In turn, the banks of streams eroded without the plants that held soil together.  Beavers were also affected because the willows they need for food and shelter had been destroyed by the elk.  Without beavers, who are little waterway engineers, the streams lacked the occasional pond that created wetlands where birds lived and fish jumped.  In effect, reintroducing wolves brought back beavers, songbirds, and the raptors that feasted off the remains of the wolves' meals.  It saved the streams and much of the flora that overlarge herds of elks feasted on. It's all interconnected, and when human beings act without a sense of those interconnections, nature suffers.

You've probably observed the complex interactions of the natural world in your own garden.  The bees who come in to collect pollen from the roses and who fertilize your cucumber plants.  The dragonflies that Wascana Park Authority used to release that kept the mosquito population down.  (Wascana Park is now run by the provincial government, and they don't deal with simple things like dragonflies.)  The ladybugs who eat  your aphids.  Companion plantings.  When Robin Wall Kimmerer enrolled herself in botany classes because she wanted to know why purple and yellow flowers grow together in roadside verges, she was told to take art classes--botany didn't do beauty.  Except that the purple and yellow combination attracts more bees.  And botany can't do without beauty.  In fact, botany may be beauty "all the way down."


The phrase "all the way down" is borrowed from and riffed off Thomas King's wonderful The Truth about Stories:  A Native Narrative, the text of his 2003 Massey lectures.  To illustrate how listeners get caught up in stories, he narrates the Indigenous creation myth that has earth being built on the back of a turtle.  What's that turtle resting on? the engaged listener asks the storyteller.  Another turtle.  And what's that turtle resting on, the delighted listener asks with a knowing smile.  Another turtle.  This can playfully go on for a while until King admits "It's turtles all the way down." 

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