Friday, 9 October 2015

Seeing the light

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Almost by mistake I photographed the secret of life on earth.

Something that’s happening all around us, has been happening for millions - well probably billions - of years and without which there would be no us, and indeed not much life on the planet. And yet most of the time, though it’s happening all around, we simple don’t notice; it’s completely invisible and, as with so many other important things, out of sight means out of mind.

I’ve been on holiday and my wife and I, like lots of people, enjoy visiting gardens, so  we thought we would catch the fantastic East Ruston garden in all its autumn glory. To enter you walk past the plant sales area and it was there I photographed this secret. In a black barrel of water used, I guess, for watering the plants. I thought the pattern I could see in the water looked interesting so grabbed a  couple of images with a pocket digital camera and thought little more  about it. At least that was until I got home. And the image revealed on my laptop made me think... and then think some more. 

Wow, life is truly amazing. A miracle of life - and certainly the most vital of what these days are called ecosystem services - revealed. Quite literally a breath a fresh air! Have you guessed yet? Well the picture below, which is also rather beautiful, not because of  any great photographic skill, but simple because it’s a gateway into a miracle. The miracle of how the natural world sustains life on the planet. When we walk in nature we tend to see places and landscapes but rarely see the processes that sustain our lives going on all around us. 

So the image of course shows the everyday process of photosynthesis: green plants using photons of sunlight to quietly get on with the business of splitting water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gets used by the plants for making sugars (carbohydrates) in a process which neatly takes the ‘carbo’ bit from CO2. A neat trick if you can do it. And one which regulates our climate, mops up all that pollution that us animals breathe out (CO2), and at the same time creates the very stuff of life: food. ‘All flesh is grass’ as they say.

So three ecosystem services in one: mopping up CO2; producing carbohydrates in the form of sugars ( food for all animals); and the bubbles in the  image, giving us oxygen to breath. The oxygen coming from the O in H2O (not from the Co2).

Without photosynthesis life on earth would be impossible. All the oxygen in the air we breathe was part of a water molecule that green photoplankton, algae and plants have liberated. Green magic! This is alchemy of the very best kind. The process becomes visible when the plants - in this case filamentous green algae - release their waste oxygen (it’s the H they want to make sugar). As they are underwater the oxygen bubbles become visible.

Surely this is worth a moment’s reflection. If we could actually see these processes happening all around us – the oxygen bubbling up from our lawns, from the trees on our streets, from our nature reserves, parks and green spacesthen perhaps we would value nature more. But out of sight is out of mind. Like most of us I don’t usually think about  what’s truly happening around me, but this chance image made me reflect on this gift of nature, and even do a bit of research to refresh my understanding of photosynthesis. From space we may well be the blue planet but for us earth dwelling mammals it’s pretty much a green planet. And this green is the secret. Chloroplasts inside leaves working from dawn to dusk across the planet on a scale truly unimaginable busy keeping our planet a living one. I don’t know how much oxygen a hectare of green plants produces in a year but, through photosynthesis, a single hectare of wheat (that’s an area 100metres by 100metres) can take 10,000kgs of carbon out of the air from carbon dioxide and produce 25,000kg of sugars!

It’s a green world because the pigment (light absorbing material) chlorophyll is green: which means it absorbs red and blue light. Plants are green because they reflect green light which they don’t need for photosynthesis.

We are quite literally surrounded by this everyday miracle, but we simple don’t see it. We only see the anatomy of nature, of our Living Landscapes. We see places, and the natural communities they support, but we rarely see process. And of course its these processes – these ecosystem services, if you want to call them that which keep us alive and keep our living world turning. If only we could see these processes then I believe our attitude to  nature would be so different. If we could see our planet’s atmosphere change colour as we pump more CO2 into it then I bet our attitude to this form of planetary abuse would be very different. Imagine it. See it. Imagine all those bubbles of oxygen rising from every tree and plant. From the ocean’s surface and its floating phytoplankton that we so rarely think about.  Imagine it. See it.

My eyes were opened by a barrel of greenish water at East Ruston. And an image, which, at least to me, looks like a whole strange universe. I wonder what other miracles of nature are all around me yet I’m blind to?

Sunlight and rain
Twisted through mystery
In green leaves
To power the world



  1. What a lovely and thoughtful piece - but don't think of CO2 per se as 'pollution' - the greenhouse effect, an entirely natural phenomenon, warms the Earth from well below freezing to a global average of something like 20C - an elegant balance between the processes of photosynthesis, respiration and carbon cycle. But now, as we well know, burning fossil fuels is adding excessive CO2 to the atmosphere, warming our beautiful planet unnaturally - now that really is pollution.

  2. So much more poetic than 6CO2 + 6H2O (+sunlight) ------> C6H12O6 + 6O2