Photosynthesis:
Charging the Earth's Battery

by Dan Schafer

Carbon dioxide gets a pretty bad rap among our present day politically correct. It seems all we can think or talk about is that we have too much of it—and there you are breathing and producing more!

But what a wonder! A big tall tree! Where did it come from? We think, Well, it gets nutrients and water out of the soil and grows. But what is it made from? O yes, it needs those soil nutrients. But when we see that big tree we realise the ground should have sunk half a metre if all the wood in that tree came from nutrients in the soil.

Ten years ago when the back garden of our house in Thailand was basically a wilderness we decided it was time to hire a landscape architect to create a nice garden for us there. He had a lot of interesting ideas so we decided to go with his plan, but we did wonder about all the trees he was putting in. A few years later we realised his plan had been to try to please us in the short term without a thought for what would eventually develop: Seven huge trees shading out all the rest of the plants and grass in the garden. So this year we decided enough is enough. We'd have to take out the trees.

Too Many Trees

But who were we going to get to do it? One of our staff knew a man in his village who had a small time saw mill, and made a business of cutting down trees. When Khun Daeng came we agreed to pay him the equivalent of about $100 to cut down the trees and turn them into lumber. We were impressed at how he could get up the tree with his machete to find and clear the right place to tie his rope, how he avoided getting bit by the huge ubiquitous red ants, how he and his workers worked like a symphony orchestra in co-ordinating getting the tree cut, down, split and loaded. We were amazed at the craftsmanship of his workers splitting a log with a cut as straight as an arrow using a chainsaw; even more amazed when we saw the stack of logs he loaded onto his truck. Then we were awe struck when two days later he came back with a stack of lumber—enough to do all our next major construction project.

CO2? Trees Love It

Where did all that wood come from? The tree leaves made it from air and water. Like all living things those trees and we are mainly composed of different carbon compounds. Those trees took carbon dioxide from the air, hydrogen from water and energy from the sun and made wood, and gave us back oxygen, too. In Thailand we get a lot of sun, and if plants get the other things they need in the right balance they grow and grow. Oliver Morton, the author of Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet summarises like this:

"Photosynthesis is the most mundane of miracles. It surrounds us in our gardens, parks and countryside; even our cityscapes are shot through with trees and windowboxes. Wherever nature offers us greenery, the molecular machinery of photosynthesis is making oxygen, energy and living matter from the raw material of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

"We rarely give the green machinery that brings about this transformation much thought. Few of us understandits beautifully honed mechanisms, or the profound role that the carbon cycle it drives has played in the history of the earth. We are only dimly aware that it is the basis of our lives three times over: the ultimate source of all our food, of our every breath, and of the fossil fuels that drive our civilisation."

OK, we can have, proportionally, too much carbon dioxide, and, likely enough, now do have too much or soon will, because we have been thoughtlessly producing it at an accelerating rate. But carbon dioxide is what these dear pivotal green things thrive on to do their job and store up the sun's energy through the process called photosynthesis.

In Balance

Charles Darwin, at the end of his Origin of the Species says, "There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved." We can agree with him in seeing a grandeur and seeing it also behind what he saw. There is something awe inspiring when we think of the design of life that made these wonderful natural providers of stored up energy and oxygen to supply us consumers of the same and to help keep the whole thing in balance.


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