I was asked recently to be the keynote speaker at the opening and rededication of a wild lands urban park that is intended to introduce and educate the children of Pittsfield, MA in natural history. Following is the speech that I delivered on Friday, April 25th, Arbor Day.
This is a beautiful day. Beautiful because it is a momentous occasion. Beautiful because we are turning the corner. Beautiful because we are looking forward and creating a foundation for our young citizens to find our natural world and be immersed in all of her mysteries.
Richard Louv in his well know book “Last Child in the Woods” talks about “Nature Deficit Disorder”. This recent social disorder is essentially about our children being so engaged with electronics, spending so much time in an artificial environment, and becoming so out of touch with the natural world that they lose the principals of the human foundation.
There can be little doubt that humankind has evolved from nature. There is an interesting progression from our beginnings. In an effort to survive we have devised shelter, weapons, agriculture, social structure, written communication, economics, mechanical transportation, and electronic media. The last great adaptation, electronic media, has undergone an evolutionary process from telephone, radio, television, computers, internet,and finally to smart phones, video games, and tablets. Like it or not a large part of many peoples lives is spent living in a virtual world.
For those of us who had the luxury of living in the early electronic age, a time where as a child television was an outlet that came after playing outside for the day, we have, perhaps, experienced the best of both worlds. Sadly, many children today live primarily in the virtual world. In this world, imagination is something that is handed to you in an electronic device. How different is that from the times when our curiosity was piqued by an anthill, a butterfly, of the awesome magic of fireflies.
As Mr. Louv observes in his book “Progress does not have to be patented to be worthwhile. Progress can also be measured by our interactions with nature and its preservation. Can we teach children to look at a flower and see all the things it represents: beauty, the health of an ecosystem, and the potential for healing? ” This statement, my friends, represents the very fundamentals of the human connection to the natural world that surrounds us all.
I have to admit that I am greatly concerned about our children becoming detached from nature. Without a full understanding and appreciation of the Earth’s functions that literally supports the land on which we walk, the air we breath, the water that we drink, and the beauty that has the capability of restoring the human soul our children’s world will be less hopeful, less fulfilling, and certainly less glorious.
And how do children learn about the natural world? In classes, by reading about it, by looking at it on a digital screen? No, kids can only learn by getting outside and playing, having fun, and frolicking amongst the beauty of nature whether it be in a lush open meadow, a shaded hardwood forest, a soggy and mysterious swamp, the shores of a lake or pond, or even amongst cactus and horned lizards in the desert.
Richard Louv says it best when he writes “Prize the natural spaces and shorelines most of all, because once they’re gone, with rare exceptions they’re gone forever. In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of chaparral, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience.”
The notion of positive reinforcement; learning in an outdoor play environment, will hopefully settle into the recesses of any child’s mind and stay with them for the remainder of their life. In essence, early childhood play in the outdoors can lead to future citizens who value the planet on which they live.
What we are doing today, the dedication of a park where children, many from an urban environment, can have a place to learn about and stay in touch with nature is exemplary. The City of Pittsfield must be counted amongst the leaders in this nation in preserving good environmental stewardship because it has committed itself to a place, and a future, where children can find themselves amongst forests, ponds, meadows, and wildlife. They can find another self, and discover mysteries that they will forever treasure.
There is a magic here in what is happening today. And how important is that? These mysteries that lead to opening a child’s mind and helping them to understand that we are nothing without our planet are, perhaps, amongst the most important things we can learn in a lifetime.
I have taken a little time to walk around Wild Acres and I must say it is full of mystery and bubbling over the top with hope. Understanding the beauty of the natural world is incredibly cathartic and this is a wonderful place to start that process in each child who comes here.
Let’s take a moment to learn about some of the beautiful mysteries that we are surrounded by right here in Wild Acres.
In the forest in Wild Acres there are large black cherry trees. This wonderful tree holds a miraculous secret that clearly demonstrates the beauty of our natural world.
One of the greatest lessons in life that the natural world has taught me is that no living organism can stand alone. Each living entity is greatly dependent upon a whole host of other factors that contributes to and often ultimately becomes the environment in which they live. Sometimes living organisms develop a relationship with other living organisms where the two organisms are mutually dependent on each other. This is often referred to as mutualistic symbiosis.
On occasion symbiotic relationships develop between unsuspecting partners. Many of these go unnoticed. Such is the unusual relationship between the black cherry tree and a particular species of ant. Ants and cherries? Two more different organisms could not be found.
Most people know the black cherry as a large hardwood tree that is native to the deciduous forests of the northern United States. This tree fills a very important ecologic niche in our temperate forests. Black cherries grow to a height of 80 to 100 feet and can easily attain a diameter of three feet. It is a very important source of food producing large crops of fruit every year. The berries are used by numerous species of birds and mammals and are available in the late summer and early autumn at a time when these animals need this sustenance to help them survive the long, cold winters of the north. The tree is somewhat susceptible to disease and predation, especially when it is young. And yet, it is difficult to imagine that this common tree might be rare, indeed, if it weren’t for a particular species of ant.
Ants are a very large group of insects that have many different species. They are known amongst insect lovers as one of the most social and creative insects. They usually live in structured colonies where each ant is aware of their walk in life. Like honey bees, ants have a social order and the burden of certain tasks that are assigned to members of that order. Some ants within a colony are responsible for reproduction, some are responsible for food gathering, and some ants are responsible for protection. Certain species of ants may even raise and farm other insects, for instance, one species of ant actually tends aphids and collect the sweet honey dew nectar that the aphids produce for food. It is this love of sweets that helped one species of ant develop a symbiotic relationship with the black cherry tree.
It seems that high up in the branches of the towering black cherry the tree produces a honeydew through a gland found at the base near the joint of the branch. This honeydew is highly prized by ants and is ferociously gathered by ants in the spring. The production of the honeydew begins when the branchlets are budding and lasts through the early maturation of the newly formed black cherry leaf. The ant has but a short time to take advantage of this delightful and necessary food supply.
During this same time period tent caterpillars become active in hopes of finding tender young leaflets to satisfy their enormous appetite. The tent caterpillar is capable of annihilating a tree’s young leaf crop. If this occurs over a period of consecutive years it can be devastating, even fatal, to a tree.
It is this coincidence of timing that proves advantageous to the black cherry tree. At the same time the ants are foraging for honeydew, the tent caterpillar is hatching and seeking young leaves for forage. The tent caterpillars have to pass over the honeydew gland to reach the leaflet, a dangerous route that places them in great peril.
The ants detect a threat by the caterpillar advance likely seeing the caterpillar as a competitor for the honeydew. The foraging ants in response to the caterpillar invasion send for large armies from their colony to do battle with the tent caterpillars. The battle can go on for days, pitting the will of the ants against the overwhelming numbers of tent caterpillars. Wholesale slaughter of tent caterpillars takes place as the ants wrestle with these much larger insects often throwing the caterpillars from a high branch where it plunges 60 to 80 feet to the ground. The battle continues until the tree stops producing honeydew. At that point, the ants go on their way, leaving the carnage of caterpillars behind, where the survivors, far fewer in number, forage on the black cherry leaf. By this time the leaf of the black cherry is almost full grown, and the tent caterpillar can do only minor defoliation due to the fact that they are significantly reduced in numbers while at the same time the leaf biomass has greatly increased as the leaves have matured. The black cherry goes largely unharmed from the remaining leaf foraging.
And so the ant and the black cherry, two organisms that seem unlinked to the untrained eye, are critically dependent on each other for survival. The black cherry tree provides critical food for the ant colony, while the colony protects the tree from defoliation at a time when the tree needs a full set of leaves for photosynthesis to take place.
This is just one elegant example of mutual dependency in the natural world; a plain and simple truth that humans should come to understand and take to heart in our quest to understand our real position on our living planet.
And what about other miraculous wonders that occur at Wild Acres? You may have noticed the red oaks west of here. Red oaks have an interesting behavior. They produce infrequent crops of acorns. When peak crops are produced all of the red oaks in the same region will produce peak crops during the same year. This allows the acorn production to exceed the rate at which they can be consumed by animals in the forest which makes it much more likely that the acorns will successfully germinate into oak seedlings that hopefully will grow into the next generation of oak trees. But how do all of the red oaks in a certain area know when to produce peak crops simultaneously? It is believed that red oak trees emit pheromones that signal all of the trees within a certain proximity that this is the year to pick up production and put out a peak crop. It is a perfect example of how trees communicate; a pretty sophisticated communication system I might add.
There are other examples of plant communication. For instance, plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi share a communication system that seems to be operated through neuron-like fibers that each of these entities shares. This communication system allows this nearly perfect symbiotic relationship to harmonize their activities to benefit each individual in the relationship. The mycorrhizal fungi lives on carbon from the tree but also alters nutrients in the soil so they are readily available for tree nutrition. This “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is a common phenomenon in the natural world.
The idea that trees and other plants have evolved to have a communication system seems almost like science fiction. On the other hand why shouldn’t they be able to communicate? How many people know that humans and trees hold 50% of their DNA in common? Sharing half of your biologic basis with another living organism reveals a common lineage; something I think about all of the time. But the fact is that as natural science evolves we will uncover much, much more about the “intelligence” of our plant world. And yes, the word intelligence seems to be a bit anthropomorphic, but in fact it may be just that we humans have always assumed that intelligence can only be defined within certain parameters.
Are there any other mysteries found within Wild Acres? Let’s talk briefly about one more.
With each day getting greener and greener I feel like I am witnessing a miracle. As most of us know, the color green is symbolic of light energy being converted to sugar through photosynthesis. If humans had invented photosynthesis it would be considered the greatest invention of all time. In fact photosynthesis is so complex that we have not yet been able to replicate it. Changing energy to food for life is a marvel that is difficult to comprehend. It is beyond awesome. It is the essence of true creation.
The first organism to use photosynthesis was likely a cyanobacteria. It is thought by some that these may have morphed into the first green life form, green algae. Over the next few million years green algae evolved into the first aquatic plants utilizing photosynthesis. Eventually some of these plants changed, over millions of years, to terrestrial plants; most likely in areas where tides exposed plants to both air and water environments.
Plants that utilize photosynthesis have structures in their outer leaves called chloroplasts. These chloroplasts contain chlorophyll and other pigments like beta-carotene and anthocyanins that are stacked in thylakoids; structures found in chloroplasts. The pigment chlorophyll absorbs red and blue light and reflects the green wave length. The red and blue wave length are utilized in converting light energy to chemical energy within the thylakoid. The energy conversion is stored as a chemical. At this point six molecules of water and six molecules of carbon dioxide create one molecule of sugar plus a little extra oxygen. The final result is sunlight turned into sugar and little air to breath. How wonderful is that?!
And you my friends are creating here yet another miracle. You are fostering a place for our children to discover the beauty of nature, witness all of her awe, and put “life” back into their culture. Your forward thinking is both exemplary and inspirational.
And one final thought. Well known chronicler of science author Valerie Andrews once said “As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees.”
Perhaps with just a little help our children will have much to teach all of us.
Originally written for the Wild Lands Conservation Area Rededication ceremony, April 25, 2014.