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Nº 76 – Onwards and upwards: to Mars!

Saturday, the 27th of February 2021

Isn’t it exciting to collect traces of extraterrestrial life on Mars? Maybe we’ll find people there? Sometimes I ask myself whether we couldn’t save ourselves the energy and the money to build a rocket and launching it to fly 155 million miles all the way to Mars? Try visualising our Earth completely without forest and without water, without clouds and without wind, without balmy temperatures and also without annual seasons. Let’s just imagine for a moment the now near-on ten billion people and the many other kinds of flora and fauna on our still blue planet all gone. Let’s for a moment also forget the concept of the ‘pandemic’. What would we see? The Earth as Mars, minimalist, as a monoculture? The Earth, a dead creature?

Let me just take a peek inside my wallet. So I see a few coins and count the few printed little paper notes. I’ve had a grandson now for a while; his name is Janosch. I often chat with him in my mind. I have to, as we are separated by many miles. Janosch lives in a different country, and right now I cannot visit him. Again and again he asks me imaginary questions and I do the same to him. Grandad, why is a tree for us humans only a piece of wood? Couldn’t a tree be also a friend to play with? The answer to that? Let’s keep our feet on the ground here? Cutting down a tree serves to make paper from the wood, which in turn is used, for example, to make a printed banknote. That would be one answer. Another, yes, when we meet again, we’ll build a tree-house together in an umbrella pine.

We humans acquire skills and knowledge (because we can?), exercise very important professions and could however leave everything as is – or as it once was: in a colourful variety, and a less complex state. Janosch, today we humans no longer plant trees for our grandchildren. Our machines lay down a plantation of monocultures, eucalyptus, for example, be it for the purpose to turn the tree into wood, cellulose and eventually paper. For a long time I allow my gaze roam far off, then I look back inside my wallet. The forest is used by humankind as a warehouse for resources and spare parts. But in the long run don’t we also destroy the Earth that way? What we found a long time back was a Garden of Eden in all its splendour. Haven’t we quite literally sawn off the branch of life we were sitting on? And where does this fall lead to? Into the abyss? Into the void? No, Janosch, I can use the printed paper (made from a tree) in my wallet to buy something for myself. What is that then?

Isn’t all this defeatist pessimism, is it just my conscience calling me out? We humans are able to (because we can?) send a rocket to Mars. We are the heroes! I have my two feet firmly planted on the ground, on the soil of my home, yet every year I will fly – not to Mars, no – but off to my holiday, right? So then this American turns up and offers me a vacation on Mars. What am I supposed to do there? I can really save myself the cost of that trip: in a few years my garden, right here under my feet will look exactly the same. All I have to do is find a comfortable spot to sit down and watch the storms, fires and bangs, in the comfort of my own home. The most suitable spot is a sofa in the cosy living room, with the TV set or the laptop sitting in front of me. Whichever it is, I turn the thing on and watch without having to lift a finger how one crisis follows on the heels of another. Maybe we might be treated to a nice juicy disaster? Who knows.

In a break, my grandson asks me the crucial question. Grandad, how do trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen? Tricky question. What is fascinating about trees is that they are entirely autotrophic in their production of energy, I reply. Grandad, what does that mean? A tree produces all vital substances without any external help – using only sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. And how does that work? This is what we call photosynthesis. Thanks to their green leaf pigments, the chlorophylls, trees are able to build life-sustaining nutrients from the carbon dioxide found in the air and the water in the soil. The energy source forests use to do this is the light of the sun.

So how does a tree convert carbon dioxide into oxygen? For this to happen, first of all air has to enter the inside of the leaf, through slitted openings on the leaf’s underside. This is where chlorophyll has the job of trapping the energy of the light and extracting the carbon dioxide, using the stream of air flowing in. In a chemical process the carbon dioxide reacts with the water absorbed from the depths through the roots. This process doesn’t only release oxygen, it also produces vital energy.

Well, really now. And how does this sugar thing work? The end product plants need to live is glucose. This energy-rich substance is water soluble and can be transported anywhere within the tree. Glucose is required as fuel to build reserves of starch and sugar, as well as building blocks for wood, bark and leaves. The mushrooms in the forest help the trees with this transformation. Trees require a lot of leaves in order to absorb large amounts of energy and to survive. Animals and humans also benefit from the forest. The biochemical processes occurring  in the tree leaves produce the oxygen we need to live. A 100-year old cork oak produces some two kilogrammes of oxygen per hour. The same quantity that about 50 people need to breathe over the same period of time. Photosynthesis is considered the most important biological process on Earth. What, for heaven’s sake, are we after on Mars? Aren’t we better off every one of us planting a tree on this Earth?

PS: Every last Saturday of the month at 10am the Friends of the Forest meet in Esgravatadouro near Caldas de Monchique. Enjoying the fresh air, they spend a few hours working in the new Botanic Forest Garden with the young trees of the forest that burnt down in 2018. They are creating a new forest garden. Once the work is done they partake of a hot soup together.

By prior registration only: editor@eco123.info. Telephone 918 818 108. It goes without saying that we stick to the guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Uwe Heitkamp (60)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, knows Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123. Translations : Dina Adão, Tim Coombs, João Medronho, Kathleen Becker
Fotos: dpa & Reuters

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