• Matthew Emerson

Born From Ashes: Pine Trees and Phoenixes

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

Today's article is written by a guest author, Theodore Clayton. Clayton graduated from Waynesburg University with a B.S. in Biology, and now works as an Assistant Scientist in Immunochemistry at PPD Laboratories.

High atop a tall mountain, towering pine trees sway in a strengthening wind as dark storm clouds ominously advance towards the green slopes. The branches of the trees reach for the skies, anxious for water, parched by the scorching sun.

Suddenly, a bolt of lightning pierces through the canopy from the nebulous heavens in a blinding flash, and strikes the forest floor, instantly setting it ablaze. Within minutes, the entire forest is transformed into an inferno, the pines popping and crackling in the intense blaze. But wait, what’s this?

Surrounded by death and destruction, a certain kind of pine tree is preparing for new life. As the fire hits its peak, consuming tree after tree, the pinecones of the Pinus contorta slowly open up, releasing its seeds into the fiery chaos. Hours later, the once dense and lush green forest is reduced to a smoldering ruin, coated in fine wood ash. And the seeds? The progeny of the P. contorta are resting comfortably in a newly fertilized soil with practically zero competition.

Trees in forests, especially pine trees, shed hundreds of pounds worth of needles year-round coating the ground, layer after layer. Along with this prickly debris, branches fall as well. After some time and hot sun, the forest floor becomes a literal tinderbox, where the slightest spark could ignite the whole mess.

While this sounds incredibly destructive, and it unfortunately can be for those who live by these forests, fire is an essential part of many forests around the world. Within the forests of western North America lies a particular tree whose’ reproduction literally relies upon regular occurrences of forest fires. The Lodgepole Pine, or Pinus contorta for my fellow bio-nerds out there.

What makes the contorta so unique is that for seeds to be released from its pinecones, they must be exposed to the intense heat of a forest fire. And when a low-intensity fire tears through a forest, it generates wood ash, a potent fertilizer full of nutrients like potassium and nitrogen, revitalizing a parched soil formerly choked by debris.

Pretty neat right? But let’s go deeper. In nature, organisms are always adapting and evolving to get an edge over the competition. For trees, they combat for prime real estate with sun exposure and soil nutrients. Some plants take a more devious route to complete this goal and excrete toxic compounds in the surrounding soil, generating a veritable “dead-zone”, prohibiting the growth of any other plants other than itself in that area. Other plants, like pokeweed, take these poison excreting allelopathic properties even further by excreting compounds specifically toxic to members of its own species. Through guile and poison, a pokeweed plant can secure a spot in the forest.

Let’s reconsider the P. contorta and compare it’s evolutionary strategy to that of Phytolacca americana, (Pokeweed). If the seeds of a pokeweed get lucky enough to find soil to germinate in, that plant fights tooth and nail to secure a spot within the forest. By contrast, the Lodgepole Pine chooses a much more exclusive strategy. Because its cones only open in the heat of a low-intensity forest fire, P. contorta will have first crack at prime real estate: brand new uninhabited fertilized soil. By enduring a fantastic struggle, the tree has nearly guaranteed that its progeny will survive. By contrast, pokeweed does not have as high of a guarantee.

Now it’s important to mention; P. contorta evolved to rely on regular low-intensity forest fires where accumulated dead stuff catches on fire, some trees are taken with it, but as a whole, the forest survives.

If forest fires don’t happen in regular intervals, fallen branches, needles, and leaves can accumulate to lethal amounts. If a fire doesn’t happen when it is supposed to, deadwood will accumulate to excessive amounts, and when it finally catches, the resulting fire will be so hot and destructive, the entire forest will be destroyed, rather than primarily the dead components.

Junk, whether it be dead branches, or dirty laundry, accumulates amazingly fast in life. Junky behaviors, junky habits, junky friends and actual physical junk. We’ll be happily living life, doing our thing, but before we know it, we look like a spy navigating a network of deadly lasers as we walk through our room to our bed.

The sneaky thing is, we all know it’s junk, but we don’t want to deal with it because ignoring it is so much easier. Do we really need to keep that grease-stained McDonalds receipt on the car floor for the next three months? Of course not, but hey; out of sight, out of mind, right?

Wrong. So wrong. Like a forest heavily laden with deadwood, it’s the forgotten junk that can really wreck you, if you’re not careful.

We're not going to speak about any Dark Phoenixes.

Now for a more mythological take, consider the Phoenix. Originating in Greek mythology, this immortal bird with brilliant red and gold feathers was said to live in a land of paradise, perfection, and magnificent beauty beyond the sun. However, this immortality came at a cost. Every 1000 years, the ravages of time became too great for the Greek firebird, and to regain its youth and vigor, it had to leave paradise and enter the harsh and chaotic mortal world. Once there, it would fly to Arabia to gather the finest of spices, and then would finally come to rest in Phoenicia.

There, in the city of its namesake, the Phoenix would build a nest out of the gathered spices and then stretch out its tired wings as it sung a hauntingly beautiful song at dawn. Legends say this song was so beautiful, that the sun would pause on the horizon as the god himself, Apollo, would stop his mighty sun chariot to listen to the death cry of the Phoenix. Once the song was over, Apollo would send a mighty spark from the heavens, setting the aged Phoenix alight within its sacrificial pyre of spices. Now reduced to ash, the Phoenix would lay dormant, until three days later, a new revitalized Phoenix would rise from the ashes of its previous form, and rise to the heavens back to the land of paradise.

There’s a lot of juicy themes in this tale that I’d love to talk about, but let’s focus on the core idea. To truly live, the Phoenix must sacrifice it’s old and tired form. Similarly, by sacrificing what is dead and unnecessary, a forest can grow stronger via forest fires, and some trees literally grow in the ashes of their junk. In our own lives, if we burn the junk, we clear our minds and souls so that we can grow what will nurture us, what will inspire us. We sacrifice the now for a better future.

And here’s the awesome part. Unlike a Phoenix, we often don’t have to die in a blaze of glory to achieve the good life. It’s all in the little stuff. By minorly inconveniencing myself for thirty seconds in picking up that McDonald's wrapper, my car is that much closer to being a better place to sit in. And now that girl won’t be disappointed that her date is a slob.

Here’s another scenario: I come home from work, utterly drained and exhausted. My room is a mess. Now, I have a choice. I could take a nap, which seems like a wonderful idea, but I’ll most likely oversleep, and wake up feeling sluggish. Then, I won’t be tired when I crawl into bed later, so I’ll stay up. When I finally do go to sleep, I wake up the next morning in a messy room feeling even messier inside. Ew.

Let’s go back. I’m home from work, and I’m beat. I step into my room, and it’s a mess. But this time, I sacrifice the nap to clean it up a little. I gather the dirty clothes strewn on the floor and start a laundry run. While that’s happening, I organize my messy desk. And by the time I crawl into bed, I’m in a cleaner room with freshly cleaned clothes, feeling good about tomorrow.

The next time you encounter The Struggle, remember the Phoenix and the Pinus contorta. Short term struggle leads to long term victory.

Special thanks to Theodore Clayton, our guest author this week, for sharing his insight with us. Clayton is a scientist in the area of Immunochemistry.

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