Let's Talk Chlorophyll - a personal view by Keith Jones

The tiny molecular engine that drives the world, Greek for green leaf, chlorophyll is so powerful it can strip electrons from water molecules - something waves crashing against the rocks on the edge of the oceans can’t do - and all it takes is a little bit of sunshine piercing through to the heart of the leaf. It is the plants that feed our world and as for the rest of us we are just a crazy bunch of parasites, pushing, shoving, squabbling and eating each other day after day, not a particularly edifying thought, is it? But unfortunately it’s a fact of life.

How much of it sank in when we were young children, sitting at our school desks, our feet hardly able to touch the floor? Little did we realise its true significance! Photosynthesis, I couldn’t even pronounce it. Abstract shapes up there on the blackboard, a jumble of numbers and letters formulated in some far off sterile laboratory, memorised by rote, we never stood a chance. Why couldn’t they have taken us out onto a meadow, sat us down, put a leaf into our hands and then inspired us with the mystery of mysteries?

Standing beneath the large imposing oak in Donnerville Spinney one frosty morning, it suddenly occurred to me, or maybe it was the tree that whispered in my ear, this is alchemy. This magnificent spirit, I realised, is turning base metals into gold, not literally of course. She (I like to think of her as a mother, corny I know) is sucking in our discarded carbon dioxide and water and by some miracle transforming them into sugar and breath. I could not think of anything more representative of a bodhisattva, one who works for others until all attain enlightenment, and she will be doing this day in day out for hundreds of years to come.

Stay too long in the shade of a great tree, between root & leaf, and if you are not careful the green drug will slowly suck you in. In some far off time and place, when the world was still black and white, a kerfuffle took place and a muddle of carbon atoms conspired to form a web (this is as close as I can get to a scientific explanation). At the centre of that web they captured and held hostage a magnesium atom, chlorophyll, and the greening of the planet could finally begin.

The large oak in Donnerville Spinney represents the apex of the greening; it is a great example of what a plant can become under perfect growing conditions.

The canopy is an inverted satellite dish tilted towards the southern sky. The structure, trunk, branch, stem & leaf are optimised for the efficient collection of sunlight and water and that’s not to consider what is going on under the ground.

We all love and feel a profound connection with older trees and when you hear about some of the research that has been carried out by scientists into the ‘secret life of trees’ it is easy to understand why. Dr Suzanne Simard, a biologist working in the forests of British Columbia, tracked carbon isotopes moving between different trees, searching for an explanation for this phenomenon. She discovered that the tree roots were connected through a network of fungi, in fact the whole forest was connected to what she termed the Wood Wide Web.

Mycorrhizal fungi attach themselves to tree roots and exchange minerals and water for sugars, not too dissimilar to the human habit of exchanging pound coins for chocolate or bottles of wine, and, once formed, the trees can then use the network to pass and receive food from other trees. Dr Simard found that during winter months, when broadleaf trees cannot photosynthesize, nearby pines would transfer carbon to them and during the summer the birch trees would return the favour. It is not only food that passes through the ‘wires’ if a tree is being attacked by predators or pathogens, it will transmit signals to warn other trees to protect themselves. And it goes on. It was found that ailing trees were supported by their neighbours and mother’ trees coincidentally looked after their own offspring. Make of that what you will. Food for thought, we wouldn’t have any of this if that magnesium atom had escaped.

Keith Jones       23rd February 2021

Note:If I have unintentionally misled anyone with the above information then I will use the famous Alan Watts quote “I am not a scientist, I am an entertainer.”