It’s almost exactly seven years since we moved here. Slowly, slowly I am learning to belong in this place I was not born in but came to. I do what I can for this small patch of this small island in a small way. It’s not much, I know. But this is where I can touch the stuff of the world, my one small point of contact with everything else.
As the pressure of Spring builds and the days lengthen, I’ve been tending to my vegetables. Our growing season is so short, there’s no second chances or autumn catch-crops. This moment is our one chance to catch the surge of light and get a decent late summer harvest, so this last weekend of long overdue spring warmth was busy.
Tiny seedlings I’d pricked out into modules to grow on under cover have now been pressed into the ground outside, rows of spindly green flames that will flicker into life as the daylight grows ever stronger, little rosettes of salad leaves, spinach, beetroot. I planted out leek and onion seedlings as fine as threads and yet miraculously vertical, each one performing its own Indian rope trick. It’s an act of faith to press such tiny seedlings into the cold ground and trust that they will grow. It feels like I press my own roots into the soil alongside them.
Today I’m back at my desk to set a few words down in rows, unsure how, or if these little runnels of black seeds will bear fruit. There’s much to be learned from the patience of plants, as they unfold, flourish, set seed and wither.
Light into food
In the fields all around us the grass blades rise, growing fast now, pressing through the thatch of last year’s dead growth. The dandelions in a neighbour’s fields, neglected due to illness, are beaming out like a universe of suns. The soft leaves unfurling into this spring light are a billion tongues lapping and licking, each with its uncountable pores, each stomata a tiny mouth kissing, drinking and exhaling as it puckers and sucks. The scale of this unfolding all across the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere is enough to show up as a distinct downward oscillation in the otherwise steady upwards trend of global atmospheric CO2.
What sets all this in motion is the light of the sun, that marvellous nonstop silent explosion of hydrogen fusion that’s going on overhead all day, every day. Sunlight fuels a complex choreography of pigments and proteins, chloroplasts and carotenoids, by means of which green plants give us both food and breath; in other words, life itself.
Every breath of air we inhale and every mouthful of food we eat comes to us by the grace of green plants and the light of the sun. Animals like us have to eat to live. But plants don’t need to eat. By the miracle of photosynthesis plants put themselves together with light. The opening leaves that are now assembling themselves by the billion, by the trillion, will turn this summer’s sunlight into food.
A Billion Fountains
And it’s water that keeps those fine shoots so impossibly upright. Without water to fill every cell every green blade, stem and leaf would wilt, slump and die. Water’s miraculous ability to dissolve and flow upwards through the plant’s cells allows nutrients and sugars to flow into very leaf, flower, grain and fruit. But less than 5% of the water a plant’s roots take up will remain in its cells. The other 95% of water is lost into the atmosphere through the leaves.
It seems that each green plant is precariously balanced in a delicate exchange; the plant must open its stomata to absorb the carbon dioxide it needs to build sugars, but in so doing it risks dehydration as water leaks out faster than the plant can absorb the carbon dioxide. As water evaporates from the leaves the plant pulls more water up behind it to replace what is being lost. Like a drinking straw it sucks water upwards from the roots, through the tubular xylem in the stem, out to every leaf and then into the air. Water cycles through a single soil-plant-air continuum.
Spread out in every field around us, a billion slow, green fountains are sending water invisibly into the air. If only we could see it! A diamond-mist of moisture sparkling upward and drifting over the land in great, shimmering sheets. Clouds are born in the ground. Rainclouds don’t only form over seas and lakes; they are also born from vegetation. Plants make mists and clouds that keep the water moving through a landscape. Rains have returned to parts of India and Zimbabwe when forests have been replanted.
Clouds are born in the soil
Water vapour is a greenhouse gas, but it also reflects the sun’s heat as clouds and ice, and cools by evaporation. Wherever you change vegetation and soil you are also changing the way water behaves. This means you are also changing the local climate. So, the water cycle operates on a grand, global scale, but it also works on this more local one. Plants suck moisture from the soil and offer it up to the air in transpiration.
Dilip da Cunha argues that we need to move away from hard definitions of ‘dry land’ and a distinctly separate, commodified ‘water’, towards understanding that we live in a world of wetness, as inhabitants of an ocean of rain. To think in terms of wetness blurs the artificial distinction between land, water and sky. Wetness is not liquid that flows, but a diffuse quality that sinks and rises, seeps and floats, and infuses all land, air, plants and every living body.
Poet Don Domanski captures this sense of water as a diffuse, animating presence in the landscape and the self:
it begins here I think with a raindrop
with a raindrop and a world with a cloud
and the cool morning air interlaced
with hot breath from under stones
it begins each morning with a few cloudlings
drifting toward the horizon
the horizon drifting toward
the vast spaces between elementary particles
from The Bestiary of the Raindrop
We don’t tread on dry land. We swim in a world of wetness.