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Sunday, July 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

George Ball: The Green Light

By George Ball W. Atlee Burpee Co.

Welcome to the first day of summer, the summer solstice, when the sun is at its highest, vegetation greenest, daylength longest, and night shortest–the summer’s “summit”. Call it, “summer cum laude”, since we’re so happy that our year’s longest day has come.

We edge downslope now to December’s winter solstice. From today onward, hours of daylight will progressively shorten, and nights lengthen. Plants need less solar energy for ripening; temperature comes into greater play. The plant’s growth is less urgent than its fruiting–tomorrow begin the slowly more temperate nights of harvest time. Watch for evening mists to rise from pastures, lawns and gardens.

Mid-March’s spring equinox coincided with the imposition of safety measures to guard against the COVID-19 virus. As a rule, we regard our residence as a refuge. Since the Great American Lockdown it has felt at times like house arrest. Yet spring gradually released its light on immeasurable young leaves, shoots, buds, and sprouts. The sun has revealed everything living around us morning, noon and evening. Green light seems to wash over everything and everyone.

Parents and their offspring have found inspiration and liberation in the backyard. They bask in warm weather, get their fill of chlorophyll, and care for new gardens. After all the TV binge-watching and telecommunication screen time, three dimensions seem strikingly innovative, and the colors so lifelike. We’ve rediscovered and, in some cases discovered, our yards, parks and forests.

Though green is not a primary color like red, blue, or yellow, it is the primal color of our world–resonating with beauty, nourishment, and life, the one thing we can’t live without.

The vibrant tones of plants and trees comprise the green of greens, the wavelength of light to which our eyes are most responsive. Green excites our visual apparatus and stimulates our neurons like no other color.

Scientists have traced the shared lineage of plants, animals and humans back some 4.75 billion years to the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA), a single-celled microbe from which all living organisms on Earth descended, before plants and animals (including us) parted evolutionary ways.

Unlike most of our ancestors, LUCA was not royalty, a swashbuckling warrior, nor a mogul. Think more an indentured servant, peasant or slave–the salt of the earth. Indeed, our ancestral anaerobic, nonbreathing cells resided in deep undersea hydrothermal vents, a humble yet salty point of origin for a microbe whose lineage encompasses all life.

Vegetation is the bridge between Earth’s terrestrial biosphere and its atmosphere–a massive relay station that captures sunlight and, through the marvel of photosynthesis, converts it into chemical energy that fuels plant growth and reproduction and, by extension, nearly 8 billion humans and all other life on the planet. No green, no oxygen, no life, no us.

Green rules the world. Research gleaned from satellites has established that plants are the predominant lifeform of our planet’s biosphere, representing 81% of Earth’s total biomass of 550 gigatons (550 billion tons) of carbon. The nearest contenders are bacteria (about 13 percent) and fungi (22 percent). Human biomass is .01 percent, cheek by jowl with termites and krill. Cheer up; as consumers of earthly life, humans are unsurpassed.

For aeons, plant life has been under siege from a ravenous horde of herbivorous predators, from beetles to elephants, that would consume every snackable bit of green foliage, and destroy all life on Earth.

For each species of green plant, there are five species of animals. Of the 6,836,330 animal species, 30% are straight-up herbivores, and 40% omnivores who dine on both vegetables and animals. Preventing a “plantaclysm” are carnivores (30%) that prey on herbivores and omnivores, reducing their numbers so plants and trees can thrive and survive. Carnivores keep the planet green.

The pandemic that shuttered us indoors has serendipitously opened our eyes to the green realm right outside our house, a new kind of living room, where, while we tend our plants, we are productive citizens of the all-encompassing empire of green.

George Ball is chairman of W. Atlee Burpee Company and past president of The American Horticultural Society.

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