An ode to photosynthesis


A couple of days of cloudy weather made tomatoes linger in a tantalizing, almost-ripe state of suspended animation.

On cloudy days, everything quiets down in the garden, because plants are the earth’s preeminent consumers of solar energy. When there’s less of it, they are less energized. 

So are we. Lots of people were less animated when the sky was darker. It was good weather for taking naps or reading – including reading about photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn sunlight into energy.

Scientists do not fully understand how this got started. They believe that cyanobacteria led the way; they were the first creatures that could grow and reproduce with just sunlight and water.

They appeared about two or three billion years ago; estimates vary widely. At the time, the earth’s atmosphere had a lot of carbon dioxide, and very little oxygen. Scientists can describe cyanobacteria in exquisite detail, but they still don’t understand how these uniquely talented lifeforms “invented” a way to tap the life-giving capacity of solar energy, and to consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. 

But it was that “invention” that increased the amount of earth’s oxygen enough to support life as we know it. It also led to a slow-moving explosion of all the glorious, photosynthesizing plant life on planet earth.

We owe every breath we take to the mystery of photosynthesis and its production of oxygen.

Now we also depend on all those photosynthesizing cyanobacteria and plants for their ability to suck up large quantities of the carbon dioxide we produce too much of. And it isn’t just trees that do this; cyanobacteria’s abundance in oceans is largely responsible for oceans’ capacity to absorb it.

Then there’s our own nourishment. Every mouthful we eat is either a plant or an animal that ate plants. (And if you ate bear meat you’d be eating an animal that ate other animals that ate plants.) Plants are the base of the food chain for all creatures, great and small.

We often think about how lucky we are to live in this place – this southern end of Puget Sound, with all our varied and vibrant plant and animal life. Especially this time of year, when the summer is sunny and the harvest is at hand, we are grateful to be here. The longer we live here, the stronger our sense of place, of home.

Knowing this billion-plus-year origin story of plants on earth helps us be grateful to be here now. We are as lucky to live in this time as we are to live in this place. It has taken both to make us who we are and to make our lives possible.

But now, the cyanobacteria can no longer absorb enough carbon dioxide in the ocean, and our vast forests aren’t big enough to do the whole job either.

The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is on the rise again, and our country and our planet are witnessing the turmoil of floods, fires, hurricanes and droughts.

Grounding ourselves in evolutionary history is a reminder not to take for granted the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat, or the plants in our gardens. And today, it calls us to think of the legacies of time and place we will leave for the generations that come after us.

When the sun comes out and the tomatoes ripen, our challenge will be to revel in the joy of the harvest, while feeling that responsibility on our shoulders.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


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  • ConservativeHippie

    Oh wow. This wonderful article sponsored by the climate hysteria psychological operation.

    Isn't Jill old enough to remember the science said we were headed to another ice age? Isn't she smart enough to know the climate tax laundry scam of the "Green New Deal"? You ever ask about the carbon pay-back on those windmills and solar panels with their ingredients procured in conflict zones and countries without regulation?

    Hey JOLT ... where is the sourcing for the claim our trees and oceans can no longer take the carbon dioxide as stated? Where is the sourcing for the statement our fires and hurricanes are a result of increased carbon dioxide? Sure seems like forest management might have something to do with the fires ... oh and arson.

    Let's marvel at the wonders of nature without the editorial propaganda.

    Saturday, September 2 Report this

  • Georgewalter

    After reading ConservativeHippie comments I had to reread Jill Severn's column. Is it really full of climate hysteria and multiple claims without source?

    The only claim I found was "the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising...." Does anyone seriously doubt this?

    Jill's column reminds us gardeners of the debt we owe to plants; they made, and continue to make, life possible on Earth.

    Me thinks the writer doth protest too much.

    Monday, September 4 Report this

  • ConservativeHippie

    "But now, the cyanobacteria can no longer absorb enough carbon dioxide in the ocean, and our vast forests aren’t big enough to do the whole job either.

    The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is on the rise again, and our country and our planet are witnessing the turmoil of floods, fires, hurricanes and droughts."

    I made several points George. You did not address one. Above I quoted the section I specifically referenced of which you only read half of.

    Let me add another point. Recently Florida saw a unique Hurricane. The media "programming" used the word unprecedented many times, and yet their stories usually included the fact that a similar storm hit 40 years ago. These grand pronouncements of climate disasters tied to human levels of affect are "programming" that has nothing to do with climate disaster preparedness or responsible caretaking for our Earth.

    The Green New Deal and it's fascist money laundry scam is pushed forward on virtue more so than science, and it hurts our planet and real environmental concerns for our celestial home. I chose to push back in this case because JOLT prides itself on journalistic integrity. Propaganda should be pointed out, even if you take it as a slight to Jill.

    Here is something I worked on from Washington State that discards the propaganda of old for a new positive future - https://ericboerner.com/news/boerner-fusion-future/

    Monday, September 4 Report this

  • Georgewalter

    Again, me thinks the writer doth protest too much.

    "The amount of carbon dioxide is on the rise again... " A true statement and an accurate summary of current data.

    "Our country and our planet are witnessing a turmoil of floods, fires, hurricanes and droughts. " A correct statement (and something that should be alarming). Surely one cannot argue that we are not witnessing such a turmoil.

    "(C)ynobacteria can no longer absorb enough carbon dioxide in the ocean, and our vast forests aren't big enough to do the whole job either." Certainly a reasonably inferred explanation of the observed rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Here are two important and vital natural mitigating processes, but apparently they have limits. Is anyone surprised that there are limits?

    Finally, regarding Hurricane Idalia. Of course hurricanes have always been with us. But this specific hurricane grew in strength while crossing a Gulf of Mexico experiencing temperatures of 100oF. That's not normal or typical.

    We writers can argue, but the questions are being resolved hyper-rationally by insurance companies. They are abandoning states with high climate change risks.

    Monday, September 4 Report this

  • PegGerdes

    Grateful for this article and its gentle reminder that we owe everything to our environment - our very breath. In regard to the comments, the final line of Georgewalter's note says it all: while we quibble over how precedented or unprecedented a particular storm is, insurers are flat-out refusing the risk associated with the climate crisis now. They know. They have been tracking this for 30-40 years. That action too is unprecedented, and will leave many even more vulnerable.

    Tuesday, September 5 Report this