Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ecosphere

A week or two ago, I looked out the window here by my desk and wrote about what I saw. That post has stuck in my mind. Every time I turn to the window, I feel myself sucked into the view.

Even before the glass, the papyrus plants, morning glories, tomato plants, and geranium, with their teeming green fly pests. Beyond, the fox, the rat, the grass, the roses and montbretia, the bramble and the willows. Falling away down the hill, the gorse and heather, the fuchsia hedgerows along the road, the neighbors' fields with grass and sedge, cows and sheep. Then, marching away to the edge of Dingle Bay, a patchwork of green fields, hedgerows and conifer plantations. Across the water, the deep dark green of the Iveragh Peninsula.

Not just a pretty view. Alive!

There are something like ten trillion cells in my body. I figure I'm seeing in their collectivity something like a billion times that many more cells in the view outside my window. (We will ignore the staggering number of microorganisms in land, sea and air that I cannot see), I try to imagine all those cells humming and buzzing with the business of life, all of them ultimately descended from common ancestors, all of them sharing the same biochemistry, the same four-letter code of life. I sit here, in my snug studio, and I feel the tug of all that activity, feel myself bound to it all by ten trillion threads of affinity. It takes one's breath away.

Some years ago I owned a clear glass "Ecosphere" about three inches in diameter. The sphere was two-thirds filled with water. one-third air. A snip of green sea grass floated in the water, and four tiny pink shrimp swam lazily about. The sphere was completely sealed. With the exception of heat and light, there were no transactions with the outside environment. The sphere was a closed ecosystem, a miniature world in which plants and animals live in balance with each other and all material resources and waste products are recycled.

The contents of the globe were not as simple as they appeared. The shrimp and the sea grass are not sufficient to sustain life in a sealed container. There were perhaps as many as a hundred other species of life in the glass sphere, microorganisms invisible to the eye. The precise mix (the product of NASA research) is crucial for the long-term success of the system. For example, ammonia is a waste product of the shrimp, but becomes poisonous in high concentrations. At least two kinds of bacteria are necessary to convert the ammonia into useful nitrite, thus keeping the nutrient and energy cycles going.

I sit here now in my own little glass-enclosed world, but I wouldn't last long without what I see beyond the glass -- the seen and the unseen, ceaselessly weaving a fabric of life that was four billion years in the making.