29 November 2015

The Wrigglers In The Dirt

As you know I find subjects to write about by simply walking out into Garden65.  It won't be long before the question 'What's that?' has popped up and sent me scurrying back to Wikipedia.

The other day I stepped out of the front door to go Christmas shopping and come face to face with this tiny centipede wriggling on a stump not two feet from the front door. It is as though Nature had flung a challenge. “Go on, call yourself a nature blogger, see what you can do with this then.”

“Ha!” I replied. “Easy”

Nature waggled a cautionary finger, “No boring your readers with 500 words on the difference between centipedes and millipedes.”

I hesitated for only a moment. There must be more to centipedes than the anatomical arrangement of their legs. As we have learnt from this blog before, where nature goes humankind follows with reams of words. I typed ‘centipede’ into Google.

Nature quickly quashed that impulse. “And don’t go thinking repackaging Wikipedia pages counts, either.”

I was stumped. I don’t possess any fascinating knowledge or amusing anecdotes about centipedes. Sorry. I filed the photos of the little chap, and carried on shopping.

But today, finally, a use for our many-legged friend has sprung to mind, so we shall proceed knowing his brave appearance in the front garden was indeed highly significant, and not mere coincidence.

Centipedes, and other tiny invertebrates, are the unseen foundation on which all ecosystems are built. Not only are they food for higher forms of animal (I'm sure our centipede was eaten by a hungry winter bird), but provide what is termed in the cold world of modern conservation, 'ecosystem services'. They help in making soil and aerating it, pollination, decomposition, pest control, and nutrient recycling. The world would be a different place without them, and yet they are generally unacknowledged, overlooked in favour of larger, fluffier more attractive animals.

The phenomenon is repeated when we go further down the food chain. Micro-organisms are even more numerous and microscopic than the tiny insects in our gardens, and, again, are vital to the health of our world. I'm sure you have been reading about the microflora in our own guts, and how our health relies on the right balance of bacteria. Scientists are beginning to study these small entities and discovering their importance. Similarly, I've noticed an increase of articles in nature journals about the need for micro-organisms in soil to maintain and improve fertility, and simply to stop it from running away into the sea. These reports include the concern about the  over use of antibiotics and artificial fertilisers, unwittingly, but dangerously, killing off important organisms. (In the same way neonicotinoids kill not only aphids but bees as well).

The theme I'm picking up is that science, and the media that reports it, is coming to terms with the realisation health is built on the unseen elements of nature, not on machines nor the chemicals or food products we manufacture.

It also occurs to me that the concept of dark matter is of similar significance. I don't understand it at all, but if the general idea is that the universe is largely made of a force that cannot be seen, then it must have the same impact on our understanding of life as the recognition of its microscopic foundations.

The new narrative of our place within the scheme of things may be moving from a human centred (together with gods created in our own image) one to one in which the invisible, the ugly, and the downright scary are the true citizens. Our health and our existence relies on the 'insignificant'.

It would be good if the world's leaders, political and commercial, came to this understanding too. Is the health of a nation, and the worldwide social system in which it exists, dependent on the wellbeing of the many: the silent, the poor, the unattractive, the dangerous? The wrigglers in the dirt?