Mighty Oaks

The Insect God
(referencing Edward Gorey)

Brian sez:

I was thinking of symbiotic relationships in nature. It is my current belief that, in most all cases, the parties in symbiosis are not aware of the relationship or exactly how it might benefit the other. The mice and squirrels love the acorns and store them near and far for their own survival throughout winter, but I'm pretty sure they don't understand they are helping oak trees to migrate north along with warming temperatures.

What are we doing that's beneficial? Is it all bad at this point? We know that much of human interest in natural things can be catastrophic to those things, and beyond, but in what ways might we be engaged in symbiosis, in a good way, on any scale?

These Questions were prompted by my link to a New York Times article Meet the Mice Who Make the Forest ("Where trees grow, or don't, depends in part on the quirky decisions of small mammals...")
It's easy to look at a forest and think it's inevitable: that the trees came into being through a stately procession of seasons and seeds and soil, and will replenish themselves so long as environmental conditions allow.

Hidden from sight are the creatures whose labor makes the forest possible — the multitudes of microorganisms and invertebrates involved in maintaining that soil, and the animals responsible for delivering seeds too heavy to be wind-borne to the places where they will sprout.

Brian's Questions provoked me to a couple of days of thinking and writing and library exploration, having mostly to do with the subtleties of interspecies relationships that we label as symbiosis, and with the grander visions of ecology seen via synecology (also called 'community ecology' and focused on interactions among species) and systems ecology, which sees ecosystems as "complex systems exhibiting emergent properties".

Deep in the essence of Living things is exchanges with environment—much of that with other Living things. Such exchanges bind into global-scale systems and processes, consequent upon mutualisms, and go all the way back to the first emergence of Life in the single-celled Archaea, and march on with the emergence of eukaryotic cells, of which Khan Academy says

Eukaryotic cells are much more complicated than those of prokaryotes. They are packed with a fascinating array of subcellular structures that play important roles in energy balance, metabolism, and gene expression... eukaryotic cells contain a variety of different compartments with specialized functions, neatly separated from one another by layers of membrane. This organization lets each compartment maintain its own conditions...
The oxygen in the very air we breathe is the product of solar-energy transducers (chloroplasts) that live within plant cells and carry out photosynthesis—a fundamental mutualism that trades protection from waste-product oxygen (for the chloroplasts) for nutrition (for the plant cells which shelter the chloroplasts). Symbiosis if ever there was, dating way way back.
As a consequence of their oxygen rich environment, organelles of photosynthetic tissues are exposed to large fluxes of oxyradicals and reactive oxygen species. Superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical and singlet oxygen are all potential by-products of respiratory and photosynthetic systems. Strong reductants found in mitochondria and chloroplasts along with a steady flux of photosynthetically generated oxygen enhance the potential for oxyradical production. Unless neutralized by scavenger substrates or enzymes, these reactive intermediates pose a lethal threat. The presence of superoxide dismutases, catalases, various peroxidases and scavenger substrates are all means of defences available to protect organelles.
(ML Salin 1991 Chloroplast and mitochondrial mechanisms for protection against oxygen toxicity)...

Seems at first a long way from Brian's question, but not so fast... somewhere in all this magnificence of the continued terrestrial evolution of living things is kybernetes, the steersman, the root of our term cybernetic, a poetic and visionary construction, not a god or a person or even a being, but rather an emergent property of systemic complexity. A bit like Adam Smith's Invisible Hand of the Market ("a metaphor for how, in a free market economy, self-interested individuals operate through a system of mutual interdependence..." [investopedia.com] "...that characterizes the mechanisms through which beneficial social and economic outcomes may arise from the accumulated self-interested actions of individuals, none of whom intends to bring about such outcomes" [Britannica]). Our metaphorical steersman mostly acts to sustain and manage balance and equilibrium in the vast complexity of terrestrial systems, living and not living. One might with profit revisit Lovelock and Margulis and enjoy again the metaphor of Gaia. Equilibrium is a state toward which many systems seem to tend, unless conditions change pretty dramatically. Think volcanic activity and asteroid hits (we know of more than a million asteroids, of which about 30,000 are 'near-Earth').

So Mauna Loa erupts, or Krakatoa (1883) or Tambora (1815), or an extraterrestrial event occurs (think the 10-15 km asteroid Chicxulub, 66 million years ago, that produced the sudden death of ca. 75% of the Earth's animals... or others of the 40-odd 20+ km impact craters that spangle the globe). What happens after such a catastrophic Event? **Life repairs, and keeps moving on. The steersman grasps the tiller and sniffs the wind...

WE have tended to see other life forms from the perspective of their benefit to or hindrance of OUR priorities; we label plants that aren't part of our interests as "weeds", and we often see domestication as a successful engagement with other species, because they are thereby subordinated to our interests. We mostly simply ignore the great complexities of interactions with other life forms, focusing upon their value [viz economic value] in our lives. "Beneficial" is mostly in terms of our affairs and priorities, and other species are seen as plastic to our needs and schemes, so we form and manage production systems according to our [short-run] advantage. The subtlety of interconnections and relationships among living beings vastly outstrips our cognizance, let alone our presumption of ability to control. Our inadvertent disproportionate effects upon the living whole are coming to bite us.

So back to Brian's Questions: to "what are we doing that's beneficial?" the most positive answer I can come up with is that we are figuring out how IT all works, and we're still just beginning that glorious investigation. As for our engagement in symbiosis, our view of ourselves as the dominant life form poisons any recognition of anything but the most trivial mutualisms, like the 'domestication' of plants and animals—the development of variant forms that couldn't survive without us. More poignantly, see A Bestiary of Loss

Our current extinction event is closer to the mass die offs caused by volcanic activity and asteroid impacts than any governing force of evolution. This is both old news and recent history. As early humans ventured from Africa to prosper across the globe, they seem to have left ecological devastation in their wake.

...Of the roughly 800 animal species estimated to have gone extinct since 1500 — and that is only counting those documented — many met tellingly analogous ends: they have been hunted to death for sustenance or sport, killed off by intentionally introduced species and those stowed away on imperial ships, or forced to leave their native habitats as forests were cleared for fields to feed distant metropoles.

So many tales of hubris and greed and short-term thinking and out-and-out witlessness. Mark Twain nailed it:

Man is the only animal that blushes—or needs to.

Another way to think about Brian's Question:

pruning, grooming, forming
IS intimate engagement with plants/trees
is an aesthetic collaboration over a protracted time.
A principled and sincere relationship with another being.

which reminds me of my lifelong relationship with a tree that's hundreds of years old:

The Cedar Tree at Blairhaven
(South Duxbury, MA)


Blairhaven in the 50s


aged cedar tree

Seems to me that making it possible for a tree to flourish over many human lifetimes is godly work, and by definition outlives the worker. Consider the enormous yew trees in English churchyards, and think also of baobabs and bodhi trees, and yes re-read Overstory. And then get Barkskins out again for another run at the vast North American tree tale.

I purely do love phytogeography.