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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