Hormones are used
to orchestrate much about the pace and form of how living things conduct
themselves. Whatever processes gave rise to these complex messengers of
governance, they are present in most complex living things. Trees are
no exception, and the growth hormone, auxin, is the chief enforcer of
the hierarchy that gives each tree its form. Higher branches become endowed
with a greater ability to produce this chemical, which can be both carrot
and stick, and they use it to ensure their continued dominance over branches
below. Thus it is the tension of ambition and suppression which determines
how the branches, twigs and leaves of a tree are arrayed. The net result
serves the whole well, but countless individual struggles go largely unnoticed
externally until some cataclysm interrupts the taut balance, removes the
head of state, and a battle to succeed to the top ensues. But whether
in fierce equilibrium or intense adaptation to change, trees and their
smaller relatives spew water vapor and oxygen into our skies almost continually,
just in the course of living their lives.
Our reader of poetry may appreciate none of this and be present only to
the gentle swaying of branches apparently content with their place, patterns
of shade and sunlight creating the summer oasis in which they’ve
come to read awhile. From my vantage point of 10,000 feet, this all comes
across purely intellectually as I imagine the dynamics of the planet,
the continual labors of plants, the cycle of water through sky and ground
and plant. Processes both vast and miniscule and rhythmically unceasing.
Inspiring, but again I begin to dissociate from the scale and am newly
The efforts of man take on a boggling scale from these heights as well.
Almost everywhere I look are roads, buildings, landscaping of every sort
from parks to agriculture. Little to none of the land below us is untouched
by the hand of man. Ours may be a relative fraction of a moment in the
life of the planet, but we’ve been busy. As someone who has myself
built things and now works beside those who do so continually and at a
large scale, I have an appreciation of the amount of work that went into
all this artifice. Anyone who’s ever chafed at the pace of home
repairs or followed the progress of some local area of highway work can
use those metrics to assess the magnitude of man’s output over time.
Maybe. The span of history is hard to grasp, as are the bigger spans of
ice ages, themselves transient terraforming in the even more numbing spans
of millions becoming billions of years. So don’t go there. Don’t
get lost in sky. Focus on one thing for what it can tell.
A farm below me. Fields laid out within the boundaries of laws, economic
logic, and the dictates of the land itself. In the vast and flat North
American Midwest, simple squares, but elsewhere more complex shapes following
topographies and practicalities. Modern irrigation often yields the aerially
obvious abutting circles of radial sprinkler arrays, these clusters of
improbable shapes ample evidence of the work of members of our species.
From the air they are simply circles that evince wonder, but I know something
of what there is to see at ground level, and I know that only a few persons,
maybe only one per many, will be found tending these patterns. Perhaps
on a tractor not discernible from my remove, but there.
Her name might be Maddie. Weathered by decades of sun and hard work, she
jounces along the rows of vegetables on a specialized machine purchased
at great cost from people she may never have met but who parallel her
in their own work. Work that builds and depends on the collective technological
and cultural experiences of many before them, as does Maddie’s.
Perhaps she is the current extension of generations who chose this place,
shaped it to their purpose, responded to its exigiencies. The farm she
works could have been found by her elsewhere, had any of the basic facts
of her life been different, but she is here, and nowhere else. And should
adversity come – and to farms it almost invariably does –
she will do what she can to stay. For most of us, a place where we invest
ourselves becomes important to us. Even for nomadic humans, for whom the
“place” is more a web of family and scant artifacts than it
is a geographical locale, even there investment of self yields belonging.