Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Cyclic Nature: New Life from Old

The father of a dear friend of mine passed away last week. Although I didn’t know him myself, I could feel my friend’s pain as she struggled to cope with the loss of this man who, even throughout her adult life, played such an important part in shaping who she was and how she looked at the world. Yesterday’s funeral was a time of mourning, of remembering, and of looking ahead to a new take on the future, a tomorrow without a person so dear to the family.

As a way of honouring our friend’s father, and her ongoing love for him, a group of us decided on a gift we hope will provide her with some measure of comfort both now, in this most difficult period, and into the future. This ‘in memoriam’ gift represents what we hope will be a symbol of renewal and inspiration in difficult times, something she can establish on her own home soil; something which she will be able to watch as it develops from one season to the next, and as it grows and flourishes over the course of the coming years. This gift is a tree. Thus, from a passing comes a chance for new life, for a renewed view of what the future may hold, and what it can mean.

In nature, new life emerges from old at every turn. A spawning salmon, its energy spent on the arduous return migration to its home of old, becomes the sustenance a nesting eagle offers its hungry young. Senescing leaves fall from the forest canopy as autumn takes hold, only to land on the woodland floor and form a dense and warming layer protecting next spring’s butterfly larva. An aged tree, softened by time and circumstance, and marked with the cavities of maturity, provides a home for a family of owls. This home, this nesting cavity, was in its turn created by a foraging woodpecker, as it sought out its arboreal insect prey that had chosen the decaying snag as their abode. This tree, when it falls at last, will leave behind a gap in the canopy through which the sunlight can make its way to the forest floor. This gap will allow the stunted saplings beneath, the grasses whose seeds had randomly arrived at this site, the woodland herbs awaiting this perfect opportunity, to grow and flourish.

In the study of ecology, it would be difficult to find the passing of one life that did not lead to an opportunity for the emergence of another. Indeed, it is only due to the cyclic nature of ecosystems that the limited amount of energy and nutrients available in our closed system can sustain so much life.

What we in human terms call passing away or dying implies a termination or a leaving. In nature, however, the term has quite a different implication. The word “passing” holds within it the meaning of leaving, but no less so that of arriving. Something passing from somewhere must, by definition, arrive somewhere else.

The loss of a loved one cannot be brought down to the rational, to the conceptual discussion of, say, the movement of energy from one trophic level to the next. As humans, we are both blessed and cursed with the possession of emotions, of deep and lasting feelings of loss associated with the passing of a life.

While no concept, no thing or word can replace one dear to us, the natural world provides a small bit of solace, a knowing that no end is an end without being another beginning.

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