The Wheel of Life
The first thing that strikes us about the earth's green carpet is its variety. Though generations have passed and many thousands of books have been written since we began to take systematic note of the forms of vegetable life we are still engaged in this task. To describe merely the different colours and shapes of leaves and petals could fill volumes; the range of size from invisible bacteria to a vegetable organism of the stature of an oak is immense; differences in structure and habit are dramatic. This rich abundance of forms, shapes and values is insistent to our eyes and mind. What at first sight we do not remember is the extraordinary stability behind this natural variety. It is almost impossible to deflect Nature; it is quite impossible to throw her finally out of gear. This stability expressed is the very basis of natural law.
The earth's green carpet: for how many millions of years has it not continued? It may have changed; desert, swamp, forest may invade this or that sweep of country; long slow climatic alterations may have affected the vegetation of whole zones. But how unalterable it is in its essential nature! It is maintained generation after generation, unimpaired, not really controlled by any efforts on our part, with powers of defying us and powers of renewal which are a philosopher's commonplace -- the weed that springs on the deserted path, the ivy that invades the abandoned house, the ubiquitous blade of grass that inserts itself even into the smallest crevice of the close-set pavement. There is a power here, a continuity which laughs at us, which is so utterly superior to what we can build or make safe that it is quite beyond measurement in terms of human endeavor. It forms part of our existence: we accept it: we are sure it will not be destroyed.
The process repeated over millions of years of the dying-down of the green carpet and its renewal is something wonderful. It is secured only because Nature has the unalterable habit of returning to her soil -- whence all life springs -- all her wastes. This she never omits. Nothing in Nature's green carpet is thrown away; nothing is discarded. There is a regular and uninterrupted cycle which never stops. Nature practices complete continuity and complete conservation. We speak of the wastes of Nature, but there are no wastes; there are no dust bins, no sewers and no rubbish heaps; there is only a scattering of material, a fresh collection and a transformation.
When the higher organism as we know it -- the plant or animal -- dies, it does not cease to take its place in the natural cycle. The moment of death is the signal for a long series of changes in the materials making up its body; these changes are living processes. They signalize the breakdown from something highly intricate to simpler and simpler forms of life, but they are very gradual, through various forms of invertebrates to fungoid or bacterial existence, and thence again through many intermediate phases to the final mineralized or inorganic stage, from which at last a new ascent can begin via the sap of the plant, which is partly fed from the plant roots absorbing these minerals. Thus the cycle runs through many forms of physiological, chemical and mineral activity, a very wide, prolonged history, the breadth, depth and intensity of which it will be well to note even at this stage of our description.
This is the process on which is based the renewal of the earth's green carpet; we may call it the Law of Return.
Every phase of it is going on everywhere at all times, and it is this ubiquity and what we may term its non-stop character which pervades everything. The shocks and natural cataclysms which seem so violent -- storms, floods, eruptions, whatever they may be -- are trivial against this immense background. Such disasters stop nothing; they merely activate some special fresh phase of the natural round, which goes on unceasingly out of the enormous accumulation of materials. For the neverceasing character of the return of all wastes insures a stupendous margin of safety; a huge reserve system is another feature of Nature's working.
These reserves are stored in a number of ways. We know that the atmosphere holds unlimited volumes of oxygen and nitrogen, that the oceans, streams and clouds contain vast masses of water; and so on. There is a more intimate storing of reserve in our own bodies and in the bodies of animals; these reserves, which include organized food reserves, enable us to withstand shock and illness. Plants do the same thing; they store what they need to enable them to withstand drought, cold and starvation. They in their turn have obtained some of the raw materials for these from the vast reservoir which is present in the subsoil, between which and the topsoil there is a continuous circulation. There is a storage system right through Nature, and it may in effect be said that there is nothing natural existing which is not insured and reinsured many times over.
It is above all the top layer of the earth's crust which constitutes the pre-eminent reserve of Nature. Here are caught and held, and transformed, the substances which build up fertility, that particular soil factor of which we know the meaning and significance quite well, even though scientists declare themselves unable to give it an exact definition. The top layer of our earth is indeed the factor on which we must fix our careful attention if we wish to understand the working of natural law. These few precious inches of soil, to which we shall have frequent occasion to refer, are the very crux of the matter. They are the habitat of, they embrace and create the vast stores of original living material from which our planetary existence is derived.
It would almost appear as though Nature herself held this top layer very precious, so careful is she to anchor it firmly in its place. It is fixed without serious risk of destruction by the vegetation which springs from it -- the earth's green carpet. What is interesting is to see the adaptation undertaken to suit the character of the soils created. This is part of that principle of variety which we noted, a variety not capricious but carefully planned and calculated. We do not, in our country, perceive this at once, because Nature is seldom allowed a free hand. But where she is -- and she is forever escaping our controls -- it is obvious. A few years' neglect of a cultivated field will see, first, what we call weeds spring up; a little more, and the hedges will begin to grow out -- the hedgerow flowers themselves are an ever-present example of Nature's independent and both selective and varied choice of the smaller flora for a temperate zone. Then if neglect were continued, scrub would cover the whole field, and finally forest. In temperate climates with good rainfall forest is what is known as the ultimate succession, i.e. the final covering which Nature would consider the most suitable to the circumstances. Elsewhere, for instance, where there are greater extremes of drought, we should find a grass covering -- the steppe; where there might run an accumulation of subsoil water, we should find marsh vegetation, in a desert we should find plants like the cactus. The adaptation also depends on elevation, as is very easily observed in ascending or descending the mountain-side.
These adaptations are very remarkable in their detailed singular perfection. Even a schoolboy will know that certain wild flowers and fruits will grow in one spot and not in another; they are a known factor in farming -- the farmer expects to reckon with the different capacities of his different fields. Adaptation is the result of Nature's fitting the instrument of the living plant to the living soil; for plant and soil are geared together -- they are a single world, and as such they must be throughout regarded by the true observer.
This law of adaptation applied to soil and vegetation is closely supplemented and indeed continued by another great principle -- the principle of mixed existence. Look at what appears to be a uniform bit of meadow grass -- there are dozens of different plants included in the making-up of the sward; within the space of a few inches a whole series of specimens may be found. They jostle and fight each other, and as the season advances fresh varieties appear; there is so great a pressure that often a week or two or even a few days only are allotted to each variety for its growth and blooming; it falls, and is instantly succeeded by something different. The competition is carried on by every type of plant; herbage, bush, creeper, tree, moss, lichen, fungus, orchid, all intermingling their manifold lives and simultaneous in their striving for their share of light and nourishment. At no moment is the victory to a single type. However uniform even the most monotonous forest or steppe may seem, there is always an abundant confusion of vegetation included in its apparent sameness, at first unsuspected but on the slightest examination amazing and rich.
The principle goes farther. Nature has laid down that there shall be no separate vegetable and animal existences; these two kingdoms are to be one kingdom. This is perhaps the most important truth which we have to bear in mind in the course of our brief survey of natural law. It is too often ignored, but it is a fatal error not to realize how basic to all continued physical health and prosperity is the dwelling together of the vegetable and the animal. The animal, it is obvious, does not exist without the plant, which directly, or in the case of carnivorous animals indirectly, constitutes its food; but neither does the vegetable exist without the animal.
It is unheard of in Nature to attempt any type of vegetable growth without the enrichment supplied by animal existences. Such animal life may be in the form only of insects or invertebrates, but it is never omitted, and is usually most abundant. The most silent, the most deserted countryside is teeming with it. The mode of enrichment is to be noted. Both the excreta of the animal when living, and also its body when dead are absolutely essential to the continuation of vegetable growth. In the aggregate the natural collection of these substances is of colossal proportions.
They do not act directly on the plant. Except in the case of a very few insect-devouring plants, there is no mechanism by means of which the vegetable can absorb animal substances as such. They have first to be dealt with, and the processes for doing so are just those processes of decay and prolonged transformations which we have already stated to take place on and in the top layers of the earth's soil -- those layers which we have called the crux of everything. When these few inches have done their work, this perfect section of the natural round has run its allotted revolution, then all is ready, and the rich green carpet so familiar to us is the reward of these processes, so delicate, so intricate, and yet so strong.
Perhaps the fact that the plant has to wait for its food materials may teach us something about yet another factor -- the working pace of Nature, her tempo, so to say. This may be described as unhurried or deliberate rather than actually slow. We are fairly accustomed to observe this; though the smaller simpler existences multiply sometimes at a terrific rate, it is more common for us to dwell on the time taken for growth even of a humble cabbage, while the life-period of a tree stretches out both behind and beyond our own lives. Animals illustrate the same law; they are mostly somewhat slow in their growth, and the higher their nature, the more noticeable this is; the long period required by man before he reaches physical maturity is a remarkable fact, and most vertebrate animals have a set period of infancy and youth, not so protracted as our own, but long enough. When we contemplate the major operations of Nature, where the quickening element of life is absent, we find great deliberation; the disintegration of rocks, or the opposite process, the building up of new land, are gradual processes, varying enormously, no doubt, in the time periods over which they consummate themselves, but seldom to be described as rapid.
This pace set by Nature is to be noted, because we shall presently have to consider how far it is within our powers to vary it; and we shall also have to consider how long Nature is going to take to make good the errors we commit when we are too impatient in doing so. There is nowadays much talk among scientists about accelerating natural processes; quick habits of growth and ripening are sought, and the idea has even invaded the animal field. The subject is, therefore, of importance, but the only point to be made here is to grasp the fact that natural processes have their own tempo, and that, on the whole, this tempo is not to be described as a quick one.
Infinite variety, a stability founded on the accumulation of reserves, an intimate gearing together, in the first place of the soil and the plant, in the second place of the plant and the animal, and a final return of everything, all processes carried on at an unhurried undeflected pace, these are the characteristics of the natural round, the laws which keep our world alive.
Thus far we may follow and understand; but not farther, We can apprehend these laws and obey them; but we cannot explain the result. The fact that constitutes what we call life will probably always baffle us. We know it, we see it, we feel it, but it eludes us. Although so persistent and pervading, so much a part of ourselves, it is not within our mastery. We can neither create it nor exactly define it.
We can, however, in an indirect way say a good deal about it. It is certain that it includes a very long progression from lower to higher. This progression or chain begins right back with some form of energy, emerges, after a long history of which we begin to know a little, as the atom and then as the combination of atoms or molecules, passes from the inert mineral stage to chemical action, reaches the biological phase, appears as an animalcule or similar simple body, and then as an organized species, vegetable or animal, and finally as man. The transition is throughout gradual, often imperceptible; there are many mineral and physical processes; there are complicated chemical transmutations; then about halfway along the chain biological action follows chemical so closely that we are forced to recognize a stage which we call bio-chemical; subsequently it is hard to say where the vegetable ends and the animal begins; but somehow, somewhere in this long transition life is born.
It is a curious fact that we, being placed at the farthest end of the chain, have the capacity to look backwards and survey its whole length. This is what constitutes the characteristic of human thought. What do we see? In the first place and above all an upward trend, as has, indeed, already been implied. This advance or upward trend has profoundly impressed itself on our imagination, or perhaps, to speak more accurately, on the imagination of the Western races; in contemplating this advance we lay great stress on the living or dynamic principle. Science, which is the product of the Western mind, has taught us to picture existence as an inclined plane, a sort of staircase or ladder, leading ever forward and ever higher. This fits well with the character of Western religions, which themselves perhaps derive something from this physical presentation; the formula and the hope of the upward trend is prolonged into the spiritual sphere. Optimism and courage are the fine reward of this most inspired conception and have rendered untold service in the shaping of our Western civilization.
Yet something has been lost. In evolving the stimulating conception of continuous advance some portion of the truth has had to be sacrificed. A very small amount of reflection will restore it, for it is not really forgotten, only obscured. To restore the balance of our ideas it will be useful to take an image which is common to Eastern thought, and instead of thinking of life, i.e. physical life, as a ladder or ascent, to think of it as a revolving wheel.
The Wheel of Life is a well-known Buddhist symbol, and it has this merit -- it restores to its proper place that other half of physical reality which we Westerners rather carelessly group together as the process of decay and death. We rather carelessly group these together and promptly forget them, only assigning a place, as needs we must, to the undeniable fact of death, which balances the fact of life and is equally inexplicable. But the interim processes, the long stages which prepare for and contribute to that consummate final act, are far less interesting to us than the stages which lead up to birth and contribute to growth and increase; we tend to ignore them.
This pronounced distaste is not unnatural in creatures conscious of enjoying life. It leads, however, to a slightly distorted view of physical realities. Too much attention is focused on the exciting phenomena of growth and reproduction, too little on the processes of decay and dissolution. The odd thing is that properly examined these latter processes are as intense, as intricate, as exciting as any that precede them; that they are themselves living processes, life; there is not, in fact, any difference in principle between them and the birth and growth of the higher organisms. It is simply that one set of phenomena easily strikes our imagination and is commonly visually perceptible, the other is hidden and not generally perceptible to the eye, might, ignorantly, be termed secret.
They are the other half of the Wheel; the half that revolves away from us, whirls round out of our sight, and emerges again at our feet to begin the upward sweep. The image of the Wheel is really very good and may well be kept in mind. A Wheel, moreover, can run true or can be thrown out of balance; on this also we may reflect. Lastly, let it be added that Buddhist philosophy has invented a very complete set of punishments, a merciless and unrelenting hell, for all who refuse to conform to the Wheel's motion.
Next: 2. Growth of the Plant
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