Sunday, January 14, 2018

Spring Ephemeral

That's large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), from the Chequamegon National Forest, in Price County, WI. Photo 5/11/07.

One way or another, most life on earth depends upon light from the sun. Over the course of a year, a tremendous amount of solar energy reaches the earth’s atmosphere – many times the amount energy used by the human race in a year. Of that, about one-third is reflected back into space and one-half is absorbed at the earth’s surface. 
Lately, there is a lot of energy being poured into the conversion of solar energy into electrical energy. Solar panels. Their useful life is about 30 years and then they become waste. It is estimated that Japan will produce 10,000 tons of solar panel waste in the year 2020. Recently, the production of solar panels in California produced about 5,000 tons of contaminated sludge and water per year. It is estimated that the human race will produce 60-78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050. Some electronic waste is burned to recover valuable minerals but the smoke is highly toxic. Most of the electronic waste in the US is stacked in garages and closets, pausing before it enters what is called the "trash stream", which, from where we stand, looks an awful lot like an actual stream with actual dead fish that is emptying into an actual dying ocean. 
Meanwhile, at the earth's surface, plants capture solar energy and, through photosynthesis, convert the light into sugar, which is then used for tissues, structure, growth, and reproduction. Solar panels. A leaf has a useful life of no more than a few years, in the case of evergreen species. Deciduous leaves are good for less than one year. Once their useful life is over, they become waste. The leaves turn shocking hues of red, orange, yellow which stun and bemaze onlookers, flutter to the ground, are dismantled cell-by-cell by trillions of unpaid organisms, and are completely reabsorbed into this thing called an ecosystem, enriching the soil, enabling growth of yet more plants. 
Light is life. Plants will orient their leaves and stems toward the light, following the sun across the sky and jockeying for patches of sunlight that have slipped through the forest canopy. In temperate latitudes, when those deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the fall, it exposes the forest floor to the sun’s rays. When spring returns and the sun rises higher in the sky, daylight and soil temperatures increase and snowmelt moistens the soil. Trees and shrubs break out of their winter dormancy. But before the light and temperature are sufficient for trees and shrubs to leaf out and cast shadows all over the forest floor, a special group of plants lying beneath the leaf litter reanimate and emerge, taking advantage of the open canopy and bounty of sunlight. Found in North America, Russia, and Japan, these are called spring ephemerals.
Plants are like shift workers; different species are active at different times of the year. Spring ephemerals work best in cooler temperatures, those found in the early spring. The spring shift. They photosynthesize at high rates and absorb water efficiently when the soil temperatures are low, when most deciduous trees and shrubs are just beginning to move sap and produce leaves. Thus, while many other plants take an entire growing season to produce leaves, flower, set seed and go dormant, spring ephemerals are able to accomplish this in a matter of 6 to 8 weeks.
After these weeks pass, spring ephemerals have stored enough carbohydrates for the next growing season. By then, soil temperatures have become intolerably warm for these species. This signals the end of their shift. Their flowers fade, leaves wither, nutrients are recycled from stems and leaves, and seeds are set. Just as the rest of the forest is leafing out and gearing up for a busy summer of solar alchemy, the summer shift, spring ephemerals are retiring for the season, spending the remainder of the summer in a dormant state. They disappear from view. Where there were once carpets of trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), and Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), there is a shaded forest floor beneath a dense canopy of trees and shrubs.
What a life. No punch clock. No boss. No litigation. No indentured servitude, remediation, arbitrators, hazardous materials, safety violations, labor riots, lockouts, sick leave, hostile takeovers, unfunded mandates. No maintenance schedule, failure points, recalls, noxious fumes, spaghetti code, obsolescence, incompatibility. And no patents. This technology is free for the taking.

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