Bacon's Rebellion

Amazing Vines

If I have good karma and come back as an elevated life form, I hope to return as an evolutionary biologist. Upon ascending to something close to Buddhahood, I would like to be E.O. Wilson (whose most recent book I mentioned in my previous post). As it is, I am who I am, and I’m endowed with far more curiosity than knowledge.

That curiosity was sparked two days ago by my visit to Barton’s Cave in Belize, a cave used by the ancient Maya for ceremonial religious purposes including human sacrifice. Steep limestone cliffs flank the entrance, and from those cliffs hang remarkable vines related to the ficus family.

These vines originally took root in the nooks and crannies of the rock formation, extracting whatever water and nutrients they could from their barren perch. Nothing terribly unusual about that. All manner of scrubby plants find precarious rocky footholds. But these vines do something more — they grow a vine-like root that, over the process of years — our guide said decades — descends twenty-five to thirty feet until they reach the water below. Just think about that — for years those useless appendages dangle to little effect. But eventually they reach the water, and there they become transformed.

The vines sprout roots in the water. And over time, the roots trap sediment from the current, creating their own ball of nutrient-bearing soil. Over time, the vines grow thicker and stronger, yet they descend no deeper than a than a few inches. They have what they need, and they go no farther. I have seen tropical vines in other locales drop from trees and implant roots into the ground, but never have I spotted such a thing as this. I find it astonishing.

If Charles Darwin and E.O. Wilson were the godheads in the great chain of being, I would rank somewhere between a fruit fly and an anopheles mosquito. I have traveled relatively little, and what I have seen I have viewed through an ignorant eye. But I do look at the world of nature with a sense of wonder, and that is its own reward.

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