A stillness comes over the natural world each August as birds cease their territorial singing and the year’s crop of fledglings quietly fatten on the summer bounty of bugs and berries. Noise has its purpose in spring when territories need to be defended and mates attracted, but it only serves to draw the attention of predators once the youngsters are out and about.
I sat one day and looked up into the trees, contemplating that almost deathlike calm. Aspen leaves glowed in the sun, shaped into a paisley mosaic by the overlap of light and shadow. Pine needles reached out of the forest gloom for their share of sunlight. The forest floor was a dappled dance of late purple asters, fading grasses and berry-covered shrubs. The world was verdant and alive, but so still as to seem a lifeless diorama of itself.
But even in that calm, life shimmered everywhere. Each leaf—millions upon millions of them—was pulling gases out of the air into translucent cells where billions of tiny chloroplasts, like microscopic solar panels, trapped the light of the sun. Each leaf was using that transmuted sunshine to change carbon dioxide extracted from the air, and water and trace minerals drawn up from the forest soil, into living matter.
Medieval alchemists frequently poisoned themselves or went bankrupt in their quest to find a way to change other substances into gold—an inert metal. But no human alchemy could ever equal the magic that unfolds silently in the leaves that shade our summer afternoons—sunshine, air and water converted not just into energy but into life itself.
While I watched the flickering mystery of the forest canopy overhead, down beneath the forest floor a secret society of roots was probing into the dark of the earth, pulling water out of the soil and feeding it into the wood cells that pipe it up the trees to the leaves. Insects foraged among the green canopy; as they devoured living leaves they were turning plant matter into protein and chitin. And the quiet birds hunting those insects would transmute them in turn into living muscle and fat.
No human alchemy could ever equal the magic that unfolds silently in trees’ leaves—sunshine, air and water converted not just into energy but into life itself.
When forest birds migrate, their tiny bodies are entirely comprised of new life that arose from photosynthesis in the leaves amongst which they were hatched. They may fly above it, but they can never leave the forest, because they are made of it. Those are actually colourful bits of forest that migrate to faraway places each fall. Fancy that.
In the stillness of that summer afternoon only a dappled green glow offered my senses any hint of the photosynthetic miracle in which I was immersed. We aren’t wired to sense the humming life of plant cells. Just beyond the edge of the forest I could hear the sounds of children at play, oblivious to the everyday magic in the leaves shading their play, even though it gave life to everything around them. It’s strange, the things we just take for granted.
By midwinter it can be even harder to sense that magic. Trees are leafless. Snow covers the forest floor. Most of the birds are gone to warmer places. But the magic isn’t gone; it’s simply hidden.
Last summer’s leaves moulder on the forest floor. Fungi and bacteria are turning what remains of their living tissue into yet more forms of life. Many of the trees’ roots have died back too, leaving carbon residues to become part of the soil. Frozen tree trunks pipe no water out of the ground; no need to anyway, because the branches above are bare.
But even on the gloomiest days of the coldest winters, the mystery lives on. Live plant cells, nearly dormant, wait in leaf buds and tree bark and roots for the balance between day length and night length to shift. When the right amount of light reaches the waiting cells, and when warming soil releases water to the waiting roots, chemical messages shuttle through each tree and the buds awaken, and leaves unfurl, and chloroplasts begin their silent work, and life explodes again.
We can count on it. It’s the green magic of nature that creates, and recreates, the world we live in, the air we breathe and almost everything we find beautiful.
At a time when our hasty consumption of carbon fuels has filled the air with so much carbon dioxide that it’s throwing the world’s climates into chaos, we’re told we need to plant more trees. Good idea: Photosynthesis enables trees to take carbon out of the air and turn it into wood.
But we shouldn’t need such pragmatic reasons to create more woodlands. The world can never have enough magic—especially the life-renewing alchemy of photosynthesis. And it’s easy to be part of that magic, after all. Anyone can plant a tree.