Life Abides

Looking down into a steaming caldron of water, or the mouth of a geyser, it is inconceivable that  life could survive there. Still, scientists have discovered microscopic organisms living in the incredibly hot an inhospitable environments of boiling springs, geysers and steam vents on the ocean floor called “black smokers.” The tiny, heat-tolerant (thermophilic) organisms are so small that 500 or more of them could be placed end to end on the head of a pencil.

Some of these one-celled life forms have become the basis of multi-million dollar industries. Microbiologists have learned that the organisms thriving in Yellowstone National Park’s thermal features contain compounds that are stable in extreme temperatures. An enzyme from the aptly named bacterium  Thermus aquaticus has been widely used in medical diagnosis and forensic science.

Several other significant industrial applications require heat-stable enzymes extracted from microbes living in Yellowstone’s thermal basins. One organism, Thermoanaerobacter ethanolicus produces enzymes that help convert cellulose from waste products into ethanol, an energy-efficient and environmentally benign alternative fuel.

In our preoccupation with Nature’s large and spectacular works, we need to remember  that the small and obscure things in our world are important too. Even in extreme environments tiny life forms, which we cannot see with our naked eyes, abide.

 

Hidden Meanings

When I think about wild places, as I often do, I recall the work of artists Bev Doolittle and Charley Harper. Full appreciation of their work requires that I look beyond the obvious, to find things camouflaged in their canvases. Their paintings often include barely discernible images of wildlife imbedded in the rocks, water, sky and vegetation. They are subtle suggestions of the inseparable connections among living things and their environments, confirmations that no organism, no natural process stands alone.

When I view one of those paintings with discerning eyes, I make unexpected discoveries. A dominant theme is obvious yet, in some of them, I have found dozens of concealed animals or plants. Each time I look I see something new, and always, every stone, branch, leaf and pine cone, every eye, paw, hoof, feather and antler is fully and perfectly formed.

Thus it is in the painting called Nature. She has added to her canvas extraordinary touches, but her work is replete too with many ordinary things. In the economy of the wild all things have value. Plants and animals, from the largest and most obvious, to the smallest and least conspicuous, fill special niches and play important roles in an unending ecological drama. One organism depends on another. One community merges with the next. One process is inextricably linked with all others.

To truly know a place, I must celebrate the small; take pleasure in the sparrow as well as the eagle; honor the wolf but the earthworm too. Spectacular things—of the Guinness Book of Records variety—command my attention, yet there is beauty and significance in a rotting log, an owl pellet, and the perfect camber of a robin’s wing. A soft breeze or summer rain shower alters the landscape as surely as a glacier or volcanic eruption. It’s just a matter of time and scale.

Imperative of the Trail

At  trailheads signs indicate distances to places or things. They proclaim, “Lookout Point 12 Miles,” Divide Lake 6 Miles” or “Ribbon Falls 3 Miles.” In our preoccupation with reaching those destinations—what I call the imperative of the trail—we often overlook scores of beautiful and interesting points along the way. A trail is a detour to many destinations. Of course, we want to reach the canyon rim, the glacial lake or the cascade, but we can make many serendipitous discoveries before we get there. Many thoughtful writers have reminded us that it is the journey, not the destination, that counts.

Praise

“It is not possible…to catch a glimpse of the great elephant herds roaming the vast spaces of Africa without taking an oath to do whatever is necessary to preserve forever this living splendour.”The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

Gary was was speaking about an aging elephant when he wrote A Love Letter to an Old Companion, but his words are a tribute to all wild creatures from slime molds and worms on a forest floor to grizzly bears and wolves in a mountain valley. He said, “…your presence among us carries a resonance that cannot be accounted for in terms of science or reason, but only in terms of awe, wonder and reverence.”  

 

The Vital Essence

Water is the universal traveler, the vital essence in all natural systems. It is especially true in The Everglades of South Florida which Marjory Stoneman Douglas called “The Sea of Grass.” Looking down on the “Glades” from above, everything stands out in low relief against a glistening backdrop of water, a broad, shallow river moving slowly toward the sea.

Standing knee-deep in a teeming stew of water and periphyton (fibrous mixtures of algae cyanobacteria, heterotrophic microbes and detritus), feet held in the mucky grip of bottom marl, One is unaware of the small life forms swarming about their legs. Millions of tiny animals and plants stir, suspended in the sun-warmed water. Copepods, fish and insect larvae, diatoms (several thousand in a single quart of water), masses of eggs and cysts clinging to algal mats, apple snails, freshwater prawns, whirligig beetles, crayfish and many more small, obscure and unspectacular organisms are at the core of all Everglades food webs.

A gathering of tall birds stands on spindly legs which seem to grow out of the water. Dragonflies dart about on gossamer wings snatching up mosquitos. Alligators silently cruise in deeper water sloughs, only their eyes and snouts visible. Sawgrass, or twig sedge, grows waist-high from the river and extends to the horizon. Here and there, teardrop-shaped hammocks of trees and shrubs stand only inches above the water. A soft shell turtle drifts by protected by its leathery carapace. On the edge of Florida Bay, a mother crocodile gently cares for her newly hatched young in a mangrove-sheltered nest. Flocks of colorful birds animate the sky throughout the day. Wood storks, barred and burrowing owls, opossums, raccoons, water moccasins and indigo snakes, and even black bears and Florida panthers dwell here.

This river is alive, and water connects all of its children.

Aside

Why the name?

The lichens that adorn trees, rocks and other features are composite organisms consisting of a fungus (the mycobiont) with a photosynthetic partner (the photobiont or phycobiont), usually either a green alga or cyanobacterium. Lichens are symbionts, organisms which live together in a mutually beneficial relationships. They are among the many lesser known but essential parts of an ecosystem.

A noted botanist once referred to lichens as “The Forests of Lilliput.” When I view these colorful living appliqués through a hand lens, they remind me more of miniature patch reefs. Thus, the name of this blog.

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