Soil Atmosphere and Eternity

Plants are creatures of light. They live in the air, eat light photons, and give off oxygen, yet strangely the dimmer the light they’re nibbling on the more efficient their photosynthesis becomes. In dim conditions, plants hunt down photons one by one, trap them, and feed them to the blue-green algae they keep in their net pens. When there are more photons around, most get away, like wildebeest in Botswana. That’s the way it is on this planet.

Young Yucca Still Photosynthesizing After Being Replaced by a Carageena Hedge (Around the Corner to the Left)

This is called “The Art of Landscaping”, which is really a misnomer for “Dirt Scaping”, but so it is among mammals, who really, really love to dig.

But, wait. Are plants really creatures of light? It might be better to say that they are creatures of darkness, who keep creatures of light for pets, because they are useful to have around, like artists. After all, plants do spend most of their time in the dark, like the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

The Iceberg that Sank the Titanic Source

 April 14, 1912 at latitude 41-46N, longitude 50-14W. Underwater it was as big as a mountain. Above water, pshaw.

 It’s like the chicken and the egg, really. Does the creature of light thrust down roots to drink its fill in the dark, or does the creature of darkness and damp thrust up net pens full of blue green algae in order to farm the light in the dangerous heat and the drying wind?

 The Chick Contemplates the Big Bang Source.

The Big Bang has finished contemplating the chick. Good job, Big Bang!

 Maybe the answer lies in what is going on down there in the soil in the dark. Think of it: there are clouds of water above the soil, that rise and fall and blow with the wind, and there are clouds of water below it, that rise and fall and blow with gravity and evaporation. Hmmm. Thinking some more: there is an atmosphere above the soil, which for plants consists of nitrogen, which is going to have to be put into the soil and mined for them by bacteria, carbon dioxide, which they drink like soda pop, and oxygen, which they don’t want at all, but we do, yeah! Below the ground, there is also an atmosphere, which consists of nitrogen, which bacteria fix so that plants can use it, carbon dioxide, which roots and bacteria exhale, and oxygen, which roots and bacteria breathe. Where there is less than 10% atmospheric space in the soil, roots choke to death.

Birch Tree in a Bad Way Bella Vista Hills

Perhaps it drowned, right there in the dryland grass. Lucky for the magpie, though.

It gets stranger. The higher you go above the soil, the greater the concentration of carbon dioxide. The deeper you go below the soil, the higher the concentration of carbon dioxide. This means that grape roots, for example, or alfalfa roots, which both can go down some 30 feet, are holding their breath and deep diving, for, I dunno, pearls?

A Woman Dives for Pearls in the 1930s Source

Could it be that this is what plants are doing down there in the deep earth?

 There are many interesting things about these atmospheres, but one, surely, is that all the nitrogen in the atmosphere is of no use to plants unless bacteria transform it into nitrates, and all the light in the atmosphere is of no use to plants unless bacteria transform it into loose electrons, which the plants use to make sugar. As it was with the Titanic’s iceberg, a lot of this activity goes on unseen, and deep underground. The flowering of plants is often the brief end product of a long, productive life. It’s that with those miniature hard-shelled whales of the deep soil, the cicadas. Here’s one, in its underground stage, when it’s happy sucking the juice out of tree roots…

Cicada Nymph. Source.

…and here’s one when it’s up in the air singing and making those summer afternoons and evenings so haunting in the hot sun…

Cicada Adult. Source.

 Could it be that plants also have this kind of double life — a nymph phase and an adult phase? Where one is the root and the other is the leaf and the flower? Could be. You may remember the weeds I found growing in December, soaking up the wet in the darkness of the winter and putting the lie to the idea that winter is a season of hibernation and death. At the time, I suggested that winter was really the wet season, and that plants that thrive in the dry grasslands often make good use of it, because for them it is the high point of the year. Here’s the picture again:

Weeds in December

Nymph Stage doing its wet season thing.

Well, here they are again, in their brief spring flurry.

Weeds in Their Glory

Adult Stage going to flower. By the time the first corn seeds break the soil, these ladies will have gone to seed, waiting for spring to come again in October, when once again they can turn darkness and light into life.

 Life can sometimes be a species-wide thing. If we measure it across the divide of the flower and seed, it is eternal. I’m all for that.

Tomorrow, a sneak peak at the Okanagan Academy.

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