Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Forest Unseen

Science has been a great boon to humankind. Anyone who has lived through a few days without power after a storm realizes how dependent we have become on the technological gifts of science. In 2004 I went 5 days without power after Hurricane Ivan hit western North Carolina; because I lived in the country this meant no running water either. My husband and I took the power crew out to lunch after they turned our power back on out of sheer gratitude for returning us to the 21st century.
But science has had some negative influences on our culture too. Scientists have made their work easier by imagining that life can be chopped up into little pieces and studied separately. They act as if this chopping up doesn’t have any effect on what they observe.
One of the consequences of this approach is the overemphasis of competition in the process of evolution: nature is composed of discrete individuals engaged in a brutal struggle for survival. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson described this view of nature as “red in tooth and claw.”
Some scientists are beginning to question this view of nature. They are putting the pieces back together to see the big picture: everything is interrelated, and cooperation balances competition in the mechanism of natural selection.
I’ve just read an astoundingly beautiful book, The Forest Unseen, by Dr. David George Haskell, which combines a poetic meditative sensibility with a scientist’s detail-oriented mind. Dr. Haskell is a professor of biology at the University of the South in eastern Tennessee. He found a patch of old-growth forest near his home, and within that forest designated a one-meter-square patch as his “mandala,” which he visited weekly throughout the course of a year. The book is composed of meditations on what he observed, and he finds inspiration in even the smallest things that most of us overlook.
I would recommend this book to anyone who loves nature; it is filled with both lovely descriptive writing and fascinating information about so many creatures, from nematodes to vultures. For many years I have walked in the woods without a goal; I would hike to a spot and sit and observe. Dr. Haskell’s book has inspired me to look even closer than before.

I loved Dr. Haskell’s emphasis on cooperation as an element of nature. Over and over he gives examples of symbiosis that go so deep they are practically a fusing of identity: the mitochondria in every animal, plant, and fungal cell were once free-living bacteria, but they are now an essential part of the energy production of the cell—we couldn’t live without them; lichen are an “amalgam” of two different creatures, a fungus and either an alga or a bacterium that do poorly when separated; many plants are completely dependent on a “mycorrhizal relationship” with fungi—that’s why when you dig up a wild plant and put it in your garden it usually dies. In fact, Dr. Haskell writes:
Not only are the cells of all large creatures modified by symbiotic bacteria, but the habitats they live in are made by or modified by symbiotic relationships. Land plants, lichens, and coral reefs are all products of symbiosis. Strip the world of these three and you have stripped it virtually bare—the mandala would be transformed to a pile of rocks clothed in bacterial fuzz…We are Russian dolls, our lives made possible by other lives within us. But whereas dolls can be taken apart, our cellular and genetic helpers cannot be separated from us, nor we from them.
The mycorrhizal relationship is a mind-bogglingly complex intermingling of tiny tendrils of plant-root and fungus. If you’ve seen James Cameron’s film “Avatar” you have an idea of how it works: in the movie the inhabitants of Pandora linked their hair to that of other creatures and plants and as a result became one with that other creature. 

The mycorrhizal relationship begins with a plant’s roots and a fungus having a chemical conversation. If that is mutually acceptable the plant grows tiny rootlets that the fungus colonizes; sometimes the fungus actually penetrates the root’s cell walls. Dr. Haskell tells us that
The plant supplies the fungus with sugars and other complex molecules; the fungus reciprocates with a flow of minerals, particularly phosphates. This union builds on the strengths of the two kingdoms: plants can create sugars from air and sunlight; fungi can mine minerals from the soil’s tiny crevices…[N]early all plants have mycorrhizal fungi wrapped in or around their roots. Many plants cannot live without their fungal partners…In most plants, fungi are the main absorbing surface in the soil; roots are just the connection to this network. A plant is therefore a paragon of cooperation: photosynthesis is made possible by ancient bacteria embedded in its leaves, respiration is likewise powered by internal helpers, and roots serve as connectors to an underground network of beneficial fungi.
Scientists are now discovering there is even more to the relationship:
By feeding plants radioactive atoms, plant physiologists have traced the flow of matter in the forest ecosystem and found that fungi act as conduits among plants. Mycorrhizae are promiscuous in their embrace of plant roots. Seemingly independent plants are physically connected by their subterranean fungal lovers.
That is, an oak and a maple tree may appear to be separate individuals fighting for space in the forest canopy, but in fact they are being fed by the same fungus.
Ecological science has yet to fully digest the discovery of the below-ground network. We still think of the forest as being ruled by relentless competition for light and nutrients. How does the mycorrhizal sharing of resources change the aboveground struggle?
Dr. Haskell concludes:
Whatever the answers to these questions, it is clear that the old ‘red in tooth and claw’ view of the natural economy has to be updated. We need a new metaphor for the forest, one that helps us visualize plants both sharing and competing. Perhaps the world of human ideas is the closest parallel: thinkers are engaged in a personal struggle for wisdom, and sometimes fame, but they do so by feeding from a pool of shared resources that they enrich by their own work, thus propelling their intellectual ‘competitors’ onward. Our minds are like trees—they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.
For over a century now the belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution proves that life is a brutal struggle for survival has been used to justify a ruthless economic system. Capitalism, we were told, is “survival of the fittest” brought into the human economic sphere: it works so well because it’s natural, and anything else—socialism for instance—goes against our nature.
Now it’s becoming clear that cooperation is a fundamental feature of nature, and I am hoping that in the not-so-distant future this understanding will change our economic and political conversations.

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