Ornicophony ~ inspired by the deafening birdsong to be heard on Llanbradach Hill, above one of the biggest coal mines that once belched out black dust in South Wales. #HopeOnAStick https://t.co/EOVI6WxH4t
— 🦡Ginny (@ginbat) May 27, 2019
A rubble road crests a ridge above the old coal pit village of Llanbradach. Breeze blocks and plastics are decaying to dust, beginning to press themselves shallow into the chorography of this place. I stand on a jumble of human fall-out, taking in the views, and think of my father; and his father.
Llanbradach Hill is one of many swells in the geodrama known unsentimentally as the South Wales Upper Coal Measures Formation. Down deep, where it is warm, labarynthine tunnels have been blasted out by men long dead, and the spaces left uncollapsed now leak with water, gas and ghosts. There are many forgotten stories. Llanbradach Coal Mine of the Rhymney Valley, with its pits sunk 1700ft deep named York and Lancaster, was one of the biggest in South Wales, employing over 2,800 workers in its ‘prime,’ and dozens of pit ponies. As in all mines, there was danger.
Men and ponies died. Men made a lot of money. Others never made enough. Though the pit closed in the 1960’s, the legacy still lives on.
From a point on Colliery Road marked simply on the OS map as ‘works,’ I push left onto an almost vertical track up into the woods. Plastic bottles, flakes of crisp packets and a bright red plastic beer crate give way to a deep scar overhung with branches. The waters of the Nant Owen fall towards the railway line, past the works (the pithead), on into the Afon Rhymney and the Severn Sea.
Further on, and the mixed forest floor reveals an exquisite shimmer of stitchworts and bluebells, a gleaming signal from deep time, the post-glacial life-colonisation of these glacial-scoured troughs. These woods didn’t exist a hundred years ago, plucked brutally from the hillside in the name of progress. The denudation is recorded on old large format images one can now find online. Yet the flowers must have continued to bloom through the loss, because here they are. I stop to take in the beauty, drawn to the colours and scents just like the scarce insects which pollinate them. And I look up at the new canopy, filtering the sunlight. On the side of the track, still steep, more wildflowers emerge. From a freshly picked wood sorrel leaf, I taste the oxalic acid also found in my own blood.
I find myself among small firs, like perfect Christmas trees, planted in the wreckage of a giant clear cut. And a fire break with electricity pilons. And the birdsong is almost deafening. I cannot hear myself think ~ an ugly inbroglio yet the most beautiful place on Earth.
Break free of the steeps, and the terrain flattens out.
Up here on top, there are more birds ~ thousands of them. This is no halcyon scene, with skeleton stumps and roots bulldozed to make boundaries to enclose sheep. And the paths are flecked with beer cans. But the birdsong fills the air between me and the clouds with an energy, a never-giving-up sound, and with sharp indignation. There are bursts of wildflowers coming through the grit and there are insects, and plenty of safe cover to make birds happy.
Up here on top, there are neolithic and feudal ghosts of Sengennedd Dyke. They wander the 20th Century waste tips, the clear-fell and baby-fresh conifers. There’s a tyre dump thick with nettles, trapping all the emotion-laden journeys and destinations into silence; the petrol long burnt high and falling back to saturate the oceans. Across a level strip of low plantation, white sheep are grazing the shoulders of muck-spread fields. The tractors groan, and I watch them for a minute ~ red diesel burning this time. Higher again, at the end of the track, three-peaked coal spoils loom like a Cirque de Doom. A buzzard circles. And then the planes above them… and the jet fuel.
All feels pulled taught, up here on top, as if the flanks of the hill are stretched in numerous directions by human ambition. And I am stock-still. There is a harshness and it is difficult. Folded up and inwards, down and outwards, is layered human fear and I’ll explain.
I have written before about fear. It’s my own greatest fear. Fear is also a vital emotion driving ecological processes. In predator/prey relationships, it keeps the death tolls in check and encourages growth via avoidance. There are moments of disperal, life and death decisions shaped by distress, such as perturbation, the anxiety of parenting, the dread of dehydration. Fear is a dynamic force. As for a fear of death itself, we don’t know for sure whether other life forms experience it, but I’m going to hazard an easy guess ~ this is the reality.
We evolved fear shaped by predators and foe, but now we cultivate it in order to justify our vestigial biochemical responses. We have substituted the predators with many things, not least a fear of not having cash, cashcards, cheques. These are the things that buy us food, clothes and shelter; the bread and butter of the banking sector.
Money: In a currency based economy we all need it. Most of our energy is now directed towards it. And quite spectacularly, our substitute fear emerges. Poverty. Once a few chieftans and monarchs cottoned-on that commodity (and later representative) money can hold so much power over others, there unleashed a beast of finding new ways to accumulate it. Money can buy war, land, water, soils. It buys miners and pit ponies. And families. It destroys and pollutes ecosystems. It can grow itself in the form of interest, or as collateral given in advance on bricks and mortar. It can earn an income in working for the machine of making money, and in dividends from consumptive companies and in their burning of energy.
Those with money strive to protect it, for the fear of losing it. Those without money… it shapes things. It manifests real things and loss, grief and despair.
Poverty is an enemy of the biosphere. Fear of poverty is perhaps its truer enemy.
Production, waste, driven to the wall. It’s all here on this hill. We can argue the good that has come from these competitive efforts. There is even creativity and innovation in widening market niches, and in producing breakthroughs in medical science and global communication. But it has also produced a culture where the ‘wolves’ of Wall Street become idols, where the richest 1% own 45% of the world’s entire wealth, and where debt and suffering are accepted as a human cost. Global-inequality, catastrophic biospheric change (the ultimate cost), the capitalist extremes and the neoliberal power with a vice-like grip on governments and economies. The effects of this truly invasive alien here on this hill ~ poverty and the fear of it ~ are obvious and ingrained.
Yet all I hear, still, is an ornicophony of birdsong.
After the retreat of the ice, and for a very long time, these valleys and hills were rich, living paradises. Steep temperate rainforests and cool rivers thrummed lush with the mainstay of life, diversity and interconnectivity. Then the people came, and cordoned hunting grounds and small farms. But it was the ironstone and coal ~ the black gold ~ fused between the mudstones and ferricrete that fetched in the opportunists, the mine owners, the Marquises and the most radical upheavels and then brutal pit closures. This is the tension I still feel today.
Lower down, in regenerating woodland, near the old pit-head laden with car breakers and high fences, the Anthropocene reveals itself again as a black smear of coal dust atop cuttings made for logging trucks. I stand and glare, noticing the thickness of about two inches, imagining it in future excavations as a thin black line. It goes into me. The thought is a unique kind of depression. It aches. It represents the displacement of so much, on a planet so rare and beautiful, and for the temporary advancement of one species only. Humans.
I miss my father. We would have talked about all of this across the kitchen table. Kettle boiling, the back door propped open with an old cobblers anvil; he’d have told me stories of the mines, the men, the ponies, his mother. My father’s family drifted from Welsh rural and Bristolian industrial poverty to the Swansea chemical works and then to the Valleys of coal, like magnets to ironstone, to suffer from the damp and dust, and a daily threat of death in the deep mines. To be trapped in a cycle of the fear of poverty. Despite my strong mitochondrial Mid Walian DNA, I surely have blood in these hills too, like the oxalic acid of the leaves of the wood sorrel. Away northwest, at Mountain Ash, his father was a smithy, fixing tools and pit pony hooves. The paternal grandfather was a pit head winder controlling the cage lifts, an honourable and responsible role, though known as Mad Jack. Make of this what you will, but he disliked the maternal grandfather ~ muscle at the very same coal face, who rode those cages each day.
Pit ponies felt fear ~ such beauty and strength locked into darkness with explosions and air pressure blasts, engines, metal, sweat. The men shared a fate of injury or death, but then also of dependents left with nothing. In just one incident (out of hundreds in South Wales), 8 men lost their lives and 43 horses, as brutal a scene as any witnessed and traumatic for all survivors. And yet now it has passed. There is silence in those tunnels. This path I walk ought to be made of bones.
My father loved the pit ponies and the vision of their annual holiday ‘up top’ as been gifted to me. Once a year, the ponies would be raised from their Hadean stables and shackles to run wild in light and on grass. Manes and tails high, I imagine the frisk, the nose nods, the eyes blinking in stark sun and the sudden and shocking speed of sore, muscled bodies. Then, the misery of returning to the austerity of the pit head buildings, a cage and deep, dark hole. Down in Llanbradach mine, a pony went mad, bolting into engines and starting them, resulting in a man’s death. There’s no mention of whether the pony survived, though because of my father, I know there would have been men more devastated by the pony’s death. They were loved. These animals were comrades in the face of danger, soldier-buddies of the smithies, the ostlers and the timbermen.
Today, down in the valley, the vrum of the cars on the dual carriageway paid for by European cash snakes its way up through the air and to my ears. In these Valleys, in ribbons of human development that loop in and around the rivers and the railways, where rates of arson and violence are high, the Far Right lurk, garnering support from those who kick back at the ‘establishment’ Left. The Left in Wales is a legacy of pit deaths, tuberculosis, and the rise of the glorious NHS. But it tumbled into a trap of Thatcherite ‘inward investment’ economies, delivered by quangos in cohort with slick retailers and call centres. Labour became the elite, and it’s getting a kicking. In the Euro Elections, the xenophobes are winning here. Wales has a problem. With poverty, and the fear of it. The re-greening of the valleys after the mines is not a linear course.
But there is hope in these wood sorrels and the bluebells. And in the birdsong. But for the coal that started the death-grip of the biosphere, and the unspoken fear that drove its extraction, and the coal spoils that loom Tolkien-like, and the bones of men and ponies, and the ghosts… this is still a bounteous place. The seeds are here. The birdsong. The insects. A new yet ancient kind of wealth could grow, if we allow it.
Even shiny new wind turbines on the horizon, pale arms waving to a prevailing wind, cannot quieten the birds. 415ppm Co2, and they still sing.
Since my article published in Earthlines, Technofossils and Radionuclides, welcome to the Anthropocene, I have been referencing the significant work of Australian philosopher, Professor Glenn Albrecht.
Glenn is renowned for his term Solastalgia, as reported before in the New York Times, now embeded in popular culture, for example, featured as the title of the fifth studio album by Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins.
In this podcast by Cornell University Press, Glenn talks to Jonathan Hall about his powerful new book, a lifetime of work on words and emotions, culminating in the most profound and hopeful message there is – The Symbiocene. Aside, I’m hugely honoured by the inclusion in the book of my own neologism Fluminism as a powerful form of love.
This is one of the most important life-ist books since Ben Okri’s The Famished Road Trilogy, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, everything written by Vandana Shiva (and, before that, Rachel Carsen’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac).
For Generation Symbiocene… please, do listen.
Cornell University Press are currently offering a 30% discount for listeners, please click here.
Joe’s Harkness’s Bird Therapy is a thing of healing.
This is a man that has been to the lowest emotional point; the first few opening lines allow a glimpse of the depths of colourlessness that depression can bring, the point at which the pain comes to zero, and there seems nothing left to value, not even life.
Don’t be deterred; there’s great courage here. Through relatable accounts of his re-connection of a life-love of birds, and new paths found, Joe finds his way back from the brink of nothingness to somewhere good, somewhere of vibrance and of song. And he brings us all along with him.
In dealing with times of extreme emotional distress, trust is a key issue in seeking ways of moving through them. We are all unique and respond accordingly. Who, and in what, should we trust? It’s one of the biggest questions in life. Joe’s patience, as a teacher of, and for, children with special behavioural needs, is extended towards all who are open to healing. He’s a good man, and by his complete openness, he has easily earned my trust.
Bird Therapy is written from the heart, and there’s no pretence. He illuminates his journey back through the shape, colour and call of the birds. From buzzards to bramblings, common and rare, resident and migrant, in all their diversity ~ like all life on Earth ~ bird wellbeing brings mind-body-spirit healing into Joe’s life.
Natural interconnected flows of life, the processes and exchanges between all life forms, are a necessity to us as part of nature. Without them, we evaporate. This is my own deep philosophy of love-ecology, which I call Fluminism. By mindfully communing with all, we can absorb ourselves in the flows and consciously perpetuate the good ones. There’s reciprocity, a strong relationship, and a hopeful message that life should and can be good.
As a social species, relationships are crucial to us. We convene where the birds live their lives, and even in the event of Joe’s book itself. He brings people together on the pages, mentors and guides. Many have contributed funds towards the initial publication by Unbound, the world’s first crowdfunding publisher. My own name is listed in the back pages as ‘supporter.’ And I’m glad. We are all brought together and I’m grateful.
Joe is so enormously generous. From the studious engagement of bird identification and in tracking them to their flolocas, to an instinctive awareness of patience as a form of grounding, he provides so much of what we need to know to begin our own journey back.
And with that generosity, comes another surprise – a deep reflection of his home county of Norfolk. We are there with him, from the picturesque Broads to the cobbled streets of Norwich, from the marshy edgelands to the windswept coasts of Blakeney Point. There is a deep love of place, of home. And, on top, the book is illustrated with delightful little bird drawings by Jo Brown, much in the way of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.
Bird Therapy is a shift from a life perspective that constantly looks inwards to one, instead, which looks out ~ we stand alongside Joe, and despite all that is thrown at us, life is much richer with the birds. Joe is proof positive ~ Bird Therapy can work, and supported by scientific research included in the text.
The book’s bright yellow cover remains one of my all-time favourites; a perfect visual summary of the story inside. Black silhouettes of a human among swifts soar upwards through time. And then onwards, slipping off the cover, with no journey’s end but healing and trust gained.
We are all unique; all with our own stories. Sometimes, the stories are searingly troubling and remove us far away from ourselves. But in reading Bird Therapy, we are graced with the option to choose Joe’s way back home, and a beautiful one at that ~ the way of the birds.
Read too, the very moving introduction by Chris Packham. Joe’s book is available to pre-order here, as well as other good independent book shops.
“Flowers are the beautiful hieroglyphics of nature with which she indicates how much she loves us.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Let in the light.
Deep in a wooded glade on the northern fringes of Cardiff, bright sunlight filters down through an unfolding verdant canopy to an array of snow-white starlets gleaming along the woodland floor.
The wood anemones have bloomed and this makes me very happy. I must be honest with you, there were moments during cancer treatment when I considered never seeing Spring 2019. Today, these ‘wind flowers’ shimmer to a breeze in waves, whilst little clouds cast shadow moments and honey bees and bee flies trace their invisible paths from one flower to another.
Spring, 1832. Weimar, Germany, and the eighteenth-century polymath and public figure, Goethe, uttered his last words to an assistant ~ open another shutter and let in “more light.” Fewer people in this world have illuminated the shadows as Goethe. His poetry, science and philosophical incantations were made manifest by his life. His was a deep ethic of observation.
Today, I absolve myself from the worry of cancer returning and immerse myself in deep observation. I put on my glasses and focus the camera on zoom to a single, milk-white bloom. Anemone nemorosa. It’s a meditation and I feel alive.
Flowering and Pollination
The evolution of the process of flowering, vernalization, is a ‘Great Turning Point’ in the story of life on Earth. Before then, though already evolved in mycorrhizal relationships with fungi, plants like ferns, cycads and conifers (gymnosperms), dominated the land. Once flowering plants made the homologous break in evolution, they became, and continue to be, distinct in the vegetative world by their vast adaptations.
With more than 300,000 species, including many trees, they are now the most widespread, diverse, and successful plants. Flowers are amplifiers in the flow of all life, key in behavioural, allelochemical, anatomical, developmental, metabolic and genetic relationships. They give life to so many.
The botanical name for all flowers is Angiospermae; vascular seed producers with ovules or eggs that, when fertilized, develop into seeds containing starchy endosperm inside enclosed hollow ovaries. As the petals wither, energy diverts to the ovaries to develop into a protective fruit or nut, sometimes nutritious and delicious, and so cleverly adapted for effective seed dispersal. Flowering itself, seems almost a miraculous process, triggered by bio-chemical signalling to ‘flowering locus cells’ in the tips of shoots in response to stimuli such as seasonal changes in daylight hours and temperature.
How did these compelling beings emerge?
Among his many devotions, long before Wallace and Darwin, Goethe devised a ‘foliar theory’ on the apparition of complex flowers. Sir Richard Owen, the British vertebrate anatomist, is credited with first defining the word “homology” in 1843, though Goethe had already articulated a homological approach some 50 years or so earlier. He claimed constituent parts of a flower are structurally modified leaves, specialized over time for reproduction or protection ~ shape-shifting of leaf organs in plants from cotyledons, to photosynthetic leaves, to the petals of a flower. He wrote:
“The ever-changing display of plant forms, which I have followed for so many years, awakens increasingly within me the notion: The plant forms which surround us were not all created at some given point in time and then locked into the given form, they have been given… a felicitous mobility and plasticity that allows them to grow and adapt themselves to many different conditions in many different places.” 1790, “Metamorphosis of Plants,” “Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären”.
This theory, along with more developed ideas of adaptation, has since been proven to be true and is known as the ABC molecular model of floral development. Goethe was way ahead of his time.
The question remained whether these events happened suddenly like mutant shocks from one generation to another (known as saltation), or via tiny little increments. It was not until later that evolutionary natural selection was proposed by Darwin and the “slow accumulation of small steps in successive favourable variations” theory was accepted.
Wood anemones have two methods of passing their genes along. They vernalize single blooms on short stems just above the foliage. The flowers are around 2cm in diameter, with six or seven (and on rare occasions eight to ten) tepals or petal-like segments with a central pistil containing the ovary, surrounded by stamens with anthers on top producing pollen or male sperm.
Some flowers, like the wood anemone, are monoecious, having both male and female flowers on a single specimen. Others are dioecious, producing male and female flowers on separate specimens. In both cases, pollen has to reach the ovum for fertilization, and flowering plants incrementally evolved to attract an array of fellow beings to help them. These are named pollination syndromes, and range between gifts of sweet nectar, tantalising scents and scintillating colour schemes to induce euphoria. Other syndromes include offering warmth in an otherwise temperate wind, or cool, dry shade in the saturated tropical heat.
Imagine a flowering plant, a symling, enduring over millions of years, an animation of its morphing form in a whirl of climates, substrates, ecological dependents like pollinators and microbes as bionts. It exists there as a breathing receptacle of the floloca, below and above ground. It inhales the complexity of sunlight, air, water, minerals and microbes, and exhales by shape-shifting, extending and retreating organs, bending to light, with the wind, and summoning its pollinators. We know that this flower signals and responds to stimuli across a myriad of its re-generations.
Since flowering plants multiply relatively quickly, adapting to pollinators can happen through just a few generations. We also know that symbiosis is a major generator of diversity. The malleability of form through selection and through lifetimes means bumblebees’ long tongues can make a flower deeper and a deeper flower can make a bumblebee’s tongue longer. It can also mean flowers that are visited almost exclusively by hummingbirds are actually designed not to lure birds, but to deter bumblebees and their wasteful visits. Several species of flower can attract the same long-tongued bees or the same hummingbirds, and adapt similar forms but completely independently from each other. This is called convergent evolution and has meant some flowers judged relative to form have not been classified correctly.
Genetic studies have taken Goethe’s important work to the next level. Clades give way to complex bunches, as bifurcation is not the only direction of evolution. Think more of trees’ inosculated roots than their branches. We are seeing this with new archaeogenetic discoveries in homo-evolution and the blending of species extinct and their traces in our own cells.
The Flowering Mind
More; trees, when given free rein from our interference, organise into chosen groups with symbiotic advantages, largely to prevent windthrow during storms. They commune between themselves and make choices. Trees, including some of our biggest angiosperms, succeed in patterns where branch elasticity diversity and crown shyness allow for the best support for one another during life-threatening storms. “Into my arms may you fall!” We also know, of course, the stories beneath the ground, in the sharing, telling and loving of the wood-wide-web. It now appears that if wildflowers are left to their own devices, they organise through time and space, generation by generation, in unified assemblages of colour and scent (Kantsa, et al). They signal across species in response to the stimuli of pollinators and pollination. Angiosperm trees, with little doubt, will also be doing something similar. It is fluministic, a deep interconnection that is a powerful form of love. Angiosperms are conscious, communal beings. They group-think and they do it down through generations.
We may be merely heterotrophs, consumers, along with a vast array of other beings, reliant on the existence of autotrophs, the energy producers, but we do have a role to play. Flowers are autotrophs, and we have been particularly attracted to grasses (rice, oats, wheat and barley). Fruits and vegetables are flowering plants, and botanical nuts are too. They are the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that generate more life, but impressions flow back and forth between producers and consumers in constant flow. We’ve cultivated and hybridized angiosperms too, and taken them with us on great migratory voyages. Lighter seeds are carried further by other creatures, including ourselves, via fruit and nut ingestion and defecation, Perhaps, we humans are fully paid-up members of this ancient, verdant group-think club.
Seeds are also dispersed ballistically (like Himalayan Balsam), or in the wind and rain, and no doubt each species has developed dispersal processes to suit its’ original floloca. Invasives may be a problem in the shorter term, but there will be new pollination syndromes and dispersal processes emerging in novel flolocas. Who are we to judge? It’s vital that we think differently from this point forward. We can be consciously competent in playing our part.
As fluminists, we can be more caring in what we move about from place to place, but pro-active in the proliferation of diversity and abundance. We could widen our selection of angiosperms in our diets, and ensure interconnected species have the best chance of surviving our gargantuan mistakes to date. Far from humans being the manipulators at large, trashing the planet with invasive vegetation, we may be one of the most effective dispersal vectors in a rapidly changing biosphere.
In the case of the humble wood anemone, its cells contain ranunculol, which like all members of the buttercup family, is toxic to all vertebrates. We can only hazard a guess as to why the toxins developed at some point in the past ~ to deter grazers, either vertebrate or invertebrate. As the fruit containing seeds can’t easily be eaten, they have adapted a second method of spread via subterranean rhizomes, a process that helps guarantee genetic longevity if the flowers are trampled or wither too quickly. They spread their extending shoots through the soils with bacterial and mycelial symbiotic communities at the rate of about 6ft every 100 years.
Deep in Westhope Hill Woods, my childhood wonderland, there’s a sizeable carpet of them of around 600 x 300ft. Remarkably, this would date the first seed to arrive at around the end of the last Ice Age. Imagine witnessing the first quivering petals growing among successional birch woodlands soon after the retreat of the glaciers; below, a tumble of moraines, where there are now roads full of cars and fields full of cider apples. There’s a way of this world, which matters and needs to be acknowledged.
Charles Darwin, also towards the end of his life, was impatient to see certain key questions of plant evolution resolved. In a letter to Joseph Hooker, he described the relatively late and apparently sudden appearance of flowering plants and a seemingly immediate explosion of variation in the Cretaceous period as ‘an abominable mystery.’ He commented that he would like ‘to see this whole problem solved.’
On this question, the light eventually came in last year. Quite some distance away from either Goethe or Darwin, a group of scientists led by Professor Qiang Fu of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology extracted 34 rock slabs from the South Xiangshan Formation. Etched into those slabs were 198 individual fossilized flower forms, some in bits, others intact, resembling for all the world like tiny cherry blossom.
Nanjinganthus dendrostyla, carbon-dated to around 174 million years old, makes them about 50 million older than any other fossil flower discovered to date and… Jurassic! It’s incredible to imagine they may have been brushed off by the passing foot of a diplodocus or the whip of a therapod tail, only to wash away in a stream and eventually trap themselves in layers of fine sediment.
The sheer number of specimens found allowed researchers to dissect and study with microscope technology, creating a portfolio of high-resolution photographs from all angles. From examination and with much intense and hyper-critical peer review, the work was eventually published only last December.
In detail, the key feature of an angiosperm is ‘angio-ovuly’ — the presence of fully enclosed ovules or eggs, the precursors of seeds before pollination. Nanjinganthus had a cup-form receptacle and ovarian roof that together enclosed the ovules/seeds. This was crucial to class it as ‘angiosperm.’ But was it an ancient ancestor of all the flowering plants ~ monophyletic, meaning they all descended from one common ancestor ~ or an evolutionary dead-end ~ polyphyletic, meaning from a variety of ancestral groups caused, perhaps, by pollination syndrome?
There have been much poorer specimens found of potential angiosperms from the Middle-Late Jurassic epochs in northeastern China, which peer review has not yet supported. Nonetheless, there are structural features of Nanjinganthus that distinguish it from these others, suggesting it was a unique genus of angiosperms that died out.
The Nanjing team want to understand whether Nanjinganthus represents an evolutionary dead-end and has little to do with many later species. It is possible, however, for such uniqueness to survive. One such flower is Amborella trichopoda, a basal angiosperm with no close relatives, and survives within the vegetative refugia of the Pacific islands of New Caledonia. Its existence goes some way to show more of the complexity of evolution.
Nonetheless, the Chinese hypothesis stands ~ Nanjinganthus are the remnants of the most ancient flower found to date, thus solving Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery,’ that so many different flowers having evolved by the Cretaceous period.
What does a 50 million year difference mean? Molecular clocks have indicated that angiosperms must have evolved much earlier. Until now, there has been no persuading fossil-based evidence to prove that angiosperms existed further back in time, and this discovery goes some way to proving and calibrating that theory. These tiny flower forms must have been a rarity amongst the cycads and ginkgoes. Nanjinganthus also has a variety of ‘unexpected’ characteristics, which could be related to the emergence of pollination syndrome and rapid speciation.
Najinganthus had female reproductive structures that are not joined together, no ovarian roof and no obvious style, as well as the association of cup-shaped receptacles with more recently evolved species. The inconsistency between theory and this new fossil record calls into question the way we understand early angiosperm evolution. Nanjinganthus offers multiple explanations. It could be some flowers that bloomed earlier than Nanjinganthus may have given rise to two groups, one resembling Nanjinganthus and the other closer to our previous conception of the first angiosperms. It may also be that different structures reflect multiple origins of the flower. In general, these may suggest that examining species alive today only provides limited insights into early evolution and ancestral structures.
“The recognition that extinctions happen is paleontology’s great contribution to human thought” Roy Plotnik 2018
The work of paleobotanists is critical when it comes to understanding climate change and its evolutionary effects. We are seeing that evolution is more inosculation than branching, diversity dynamic and sometimes unstable. More importantly, I contend, it offers insight into the magnitude of losses to bear as a consequence of geologically abrupt events such as the Anthropocene. It gives us a fair understanding of how long these things take to diversify again and, indeed, the boom of speciation to come, which may or may not include the human race. It guides us in our responsibilities and gives us perspective on our short geological lives; that we are so young and flowers are so well adapted and adaptive.
We’ve much to learn from flowers, and realising this gives us a deeper understanding of all other evolved life and the beauty in relationships. There are endogenous cues to evolution, and it is not simply the random genetic mutations which survive. There is mindfulness, this flowering mind, a complex conscious shaping from inside and out, a reflexive thing and with more intent than one might otherwise imagine. We may even be a conscious part of it.
Rudolph Steiner, Goethe’s student, wrote in The Fundamental Social Law , of the well-being of a community of people working together is greater the less the individual claims the proceeds of his work for himself, i.e. the more of these proceeds he makes over to his fellow-workers, the more his own needs are satisfied, not out of his own work but out of the work done by others.
“The healthy social life is found
When in the mirror of each human soul
The whole community finds its reflection,
And when in the community
The virtue of each one is living.”
And so it seems for angiosperms. The healing capacity for community far exceeds the injuries of competition. We are not so different after all.
Nanjinganthus sends exanimate signals through time ~ there are moral implications, again, more than one might imagine. The early flowers may well have struggled in isolation, often dying out, then appearing again. It may not have been until flowers existed in conscious communities that longevity and success eventually came, leading to the diversity of life we see today. We must surely be careful that those communities are respected. That the flowers have the resilience to survive despite our hubris. The biosphere has seen major extinctions before, but this is the first where the causal factor ~ Homo sapien ~ has a choice not to proceed. We must choose life.
Humans have hybridized flowers to a huge degree for our own aesthetic and sensory pleasure. Humans have also selected fewer and fewer species for food and medicine (trees, shrubs and herbs). Commercialization and industrialization mean fewer again, especially if you count the evils of patenting genetically engineered crops; and the overbearing power this has over people and wildlife. Associated microbiomes, which have improved their chances of success, are lost.
We have no idea of the speed or extent of the harm this may do to us and all other life. We’ve processed food on top, narrowing our own genetic chances of adaptation in any kind of catastrophic loss of flowers. The lack of diversity in monoculture leaves all in a vulnerable state ~ the autotrophs and heterotrophs, including us. Our ‘great’ minds have failed to plan for any of this, even with our basic understanding of pollination.
Even in our desperate attempts to re-instate wildflowers distributed commercially in gardens mean only a few species and genetic strains are spread widely, and we then offer them little opportunity of organising themselves into resilient communities, as they have evolved.
So many living beings are utterly reliant on angiosperms, either directly, or by the consumption of others who eat them, their seeds and fruits. Flowers, we perceive, are also intensely beautiful, symbolised and celebrated in gardens worldwide, art and diverse cultural life. Farming/gardening may well be a cul de sac for some angiosperms in terms of evolutionary complexity and flow.
Angiosperms may need freedom again to choose, in order to evolve and survive the Anthropocene. Protected lands need to include areas where the wild ancestors of crops still cling on. Look to protecting them in their original flolocas, like the apples of Western China, the maize of Mexico and wild rice of North America, and we can also deeply observe their communities in true Geothian style.
What’s going to happen to the evolutionary flow of flowers without bumblebees, or other pollinators that we have destroyed by pesticides, ousted by development and injured by rising temperatures and climatic volatility? Evolutionary scientists can only hazard a guess. I have called this effect hubrigenesis. If we wipe out the bees, perhaps flies will take over. If flies dominate pollination, then expect flowers to ‘radiate’ unpleasant odours and green colours in order to attract them.
There are instruction videos on Youtube on how to ‘hand’ pollinate flowers by using cotton swabs and small paintbrushes. What is the pollination syndrome of a paintbrush? If paintbrushes become a flower’s instrument for survival, what happens when there are no humans to operate them? Some companies are developing tiny robotic pollinators. I’m calling it out.
Our responsibility towards protecting the outcome of millions of years of angiosperm evolution is at a scale of the changes in our atmosphere. And then there are the soils, the nitrogen and water cycles. We too are evolutionarily reflexive, but we are on our own as a human species. All other Homo beings have died out, even if they have left a little DNA in ours. We are vulnerable, despite seven billion of us. Our rates of reproduction are so much less abundant to allow radiation of adaptation and eventually speciation, like the angiosperms.
Every time our cultures choose a route, we instigate selection and determining consequences, some of which we simply have no idea. The industrialisation of food production has been a hammer blow to abundance and symbiotic diversity. Some cultural responses will be good such as permaculture, but a monoculture-pesticide-GM riddled version, patented and exported by corporates, is deeply problematic in breaking flows of sustained life.
We need to look again at the protection of food crops in the wild, diversifying our diet, eating less meat and including a broader variety of native vegetative species; of eventually, perhaps given catastrophic losses to Earth Crises, from droughts and floods to conflicts and migration, a return to a foraging lifestyle (nature first).
We may need to look at re-seeding species to the north and south and upwards through altitude due to climate change and the shifting of biome frontiers. At the very least, we must allow other species the capability to move and re-seed; part of the role of the fluminist in action.
With a culture of flower as a thing of beauty in our everyday lives, it is easy to underestimate their absolute power in the current flow of all living beings. From Najinganthus to the wood anemone to the latest hybrid oat. Now is the time to recognise it, to let in the light.
Meanwhile, we convene at the flower and its evolution, past, present and future. Paleobotanists, phylogeneticists, and morphologists ~ farmers, gardeners and artists ~ flowers and their adaptations also bring people together. The process is of breathing life into relationships. From Goethe to Steiner to Darwin to Qiang Fu to me here with the wood anemones today; a bounty of millions of years of reflexive, shape-shifting, symbiotic evolution. The flowering mind – it’s all around us. We just need to feel it.