Angela Cannon-Crothers

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The Deep Under-the-Green

Posted by Angela Cannon-Crothers on February 13, 2013 at 7:55 AM

The Deep Under-the-green

Miracle of miracles. The landscape is awakening; the first killdeer are heard piping, spring peepers are ringing, rivulets of water are running and an emerald gleam is rising. I’m eager to go forage for the first feasts of spring: wild leeks to add to soups, dandelion and garlic mustard for vivid green pesto, fresh plucked fiddlehead ferns to steam with butter and if luck has it, a discovery of elusive morel mushrooms to devour.

It’s easy this time of year to see the life force sweep across the land, resurfacing it with growing, living things lifted up by the warmth of the sun. The web of life bursts forth like waves to the shore with each bud and blossom. It would also be easy to mistake such a sight with the presumption that “all of creation” is only here on the surface of our rare Earth; just a thin coat that serves as a shell and the only place that can support biotic activity; but it just isn’t so.

As I dig down to pull up a dandelion whose deep tap root is excellent for strengthening my liver and whose green leaves can provide the depth of my own tiny cells with important nutrients, I peer into the amazing ecosystem of microbes who help make all this upper green possible; everything from arthropods and soil nematodes to bacteria and fungi who keep the process of decomposition and nutrient recycling moving for the rest of us. The intricate webs of fungi mycelium themselves can be a couple square feet in size to over thirty square miles for a single individual. Millions of unseen creatures in the soil layers are working, busy, making the contributions necessary for life on earth as we know it.

Further down, much, much further down, is a place we imagine as a dark and mineral world void of life with merely a structural support sort of function. This is also wrong, way wrong. Sandra Steingraber, author, ecologist, and human activist for chemical contamination, wrote in the January/February issue of Orion Magazine about the amazing discoveries of “deep life” – not in the oceans, but in the bedrock, extending our notions of the biosphere up to three miles below the surface. Take for instance, ancient bacterium that use hydrogen for energy and transfer electrons into the mineral rock around them that exist in deep bedrock in colonies and communities creating their own vital cycles to Earth’s recognizance. Incidentally, these bacteria are estimated to have been present on Earth for about 85% of the planet’s history. Mankind? Our presence is just a mere blip of time in comparison. Even more astounding, a species of roundworm – a multicellular creature -- was recently discovered over three kilometers below the earth’s surface. Writes Steingraber, “by weight, more than half of all life on Earth likely lies within deep geological strata.” And she adds, “as a major player in elemental cycling, deep life may be contributing to climate stability.”

It appears that the mystical Middle Earth, the deep, deep, underground being blasted and injected with untold chemical stews from hydrofracking gas extraction is actually somebody’s home. And a somebody whose function and contributions to the planet as a whole aren’t even understood one iota yet.

Now, I’m not trying to give some Spotted Owl battle cry (not that I wouldn’t) to save the roundworm, Halicephaobus mephisto, or to protect an ancient radioactive fixing bacteria that might come in handy for cleaning up some of our other messes, but rather to ask that we consider not just our fresh drinking water, our clean (cough, cough) air (which by the way, turns out to also harbor amazing microscopic critters way up in the atmosphere) but a Kingdom of life we know nothing about, and an amazing geo-microbiological system that forms the foundation of a planet that just happens to be the one we live on. One that in the deepest depths of the entire ‘Verse, seems to be the only one we have that will support us.

Dandelion in hand, I rise back up from these depths in wonder with a gasp. There is some sort of life force deep, deep down within the Earth and realize -- the Earth really is Gaia, a living organism. I shake the dark dirt full of hundreds of miniscule microbes off the dandelion root and leaves that will nourish my own cosmos of cells, that I will wash clean with the sweet deep well water from my faucet that is still safe to drink (knock on faucets), as I take a full, deep breath and remind myself what a blessing this all is, how we should never take any of it for granted, no matter how deep or far away it seems.

 

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