The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

EcologyOfStory coverI remember a wonderful conversation I had several years ago at a conference with another science fiction writer on weird and wonderful protagonists and antagonists. Derek knew me as an ecologist—in fact I’d been invited to do a lecture at that conference entitled “The Ecology of Story” (also the name of my writing guidebook on treating setting and place as a character). We discussed the role that ecology plays in creating setting that resonates with theme and how to provide characters enlivened with metaphor.

Derek was fascinated by saprotrophs and their qualities. Saprotrophs take their nutrition from dead and decaying matter such as decaying pieces of plants or animals by dissolving them and absorbing the energy through their body surface. They accomplish this by secreting digestive enzymes into the dead/decaying matter to absorb the soluble organic nutrients. The process—called lysotrophic nutrition—occurs through microscopic lysis of detritus. Examples of saprotrophs include mushrooms, slime mold, and bacteria.

Recipearium CostiGurguI recall Derek’s eagerness to create a story that involved characters who demonstrate saprotrophic traits or even were genuine saprotrophs (in science fiction you can do that—it’s not hard. Check out Costi Gurgu’s astonishing novel Recipearium for a thrilling example). I wonder if Derek fulfilled his imagination.

I think of what Derek said, as I walk in my favourite woodland. It is early spring and the river that had swollen with snow melt just a week before, now flows with more restraint. I can see the cobbles and clay of scoured banks under the water. Further on, part of the path along the river has collapsed from a major bank scour the previous week. The little river is rather big and capricious, I ponder; then I consider that the entire forest sways to similar vagaries of wind, season, precipitation and unforeseen events. Despite its steadfast appearance the forest flows—like the river—in a constant state of flux and change, cycling irrevocably through life and death.

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Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I’m writing this, the entire world struggles with life and death in the deep throws of a viral pandemic. COVID-19 has sent many cities into severe lock down to prevent viral spread in a life and death conflict. I’ve left the city and I’m walking in a quiet forest in southern Ontario in early spring. The forest is also experiencing life and death. But here, this intricate dance has seamlessly partnered death and decay with the living being of the forest. Without the firm embrace of death and decay, life cannot dance. In fact, life would be impossible. What strikes me here in the forest is how the two dance so well.

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Cedar log, patterns in sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I walk slowly, eyes cast to the forest floor to the thick layer of dead leaves, and discover seeds and nuts—the promise of new life. I aim my gaze past trees and shrubs to the nearby snags and fallen logs. I’m looking for hidden gifts. One fallen cedar log reveals swirling impressionistic patterns of wood grain, dusted with moss and lichen. Nature’s death clothed in beauty.

The bark of a large pine tree that has fallen is riddled with tiny beetle holes drilled into its bark. Where the bark has sloughed off, a gallery of larval tracks in the sapwood create a map of meandering texture, form and colour.

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White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Beetle larval tracks in pine sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nearby, another giant pine stands tall in the forest. Its roughly chiselled bark is dusted in lichens, moss and fungus. The broad thick ridges of the bark seem arranged like in a jigsaw puzzle with scales that resemble metal plates. They form a colourful layered mosaic of copper to gray and greenish-gray. At the base of the tree, I notice that some critter has burrowed a home in a notch between two of the pine’s feet. Then just around the corner, at the base of a cedar, I spot several half-eaten black walnuts strewn in a pile—no doubt brought and left there by some hungry and industrious squirrel who prefers to dine here.

The forest is littered with snags and fallen trees in different stages of breakdown, decomposition and decay. I spot several large cedar, pine, oak and maple snags with woodpecker holes. The snags may remain for many decades before finally falling to the ground.

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

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Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms in various stages of life and death and decay. Trees lie at the heart of this ecosystem, supporting a complex and dynamic cycle of evolving life. Even in death, the trees continue to support thriving detrivore and saprophytic communities that, in turn, provide nutrients and soil for the next generation of living trees. It’s a partnership.

Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, writes Trees for Life; and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems.

Snags and rotting logs on the forest floor provide damp shelter and food for many plants and animals. Most are decomposers, including earthworms, fungi, and bacteria. As the wood decays, nutrients in the log break down and recycle in the forest ecosystem. Insects, mosses, lichens, and ferns recycle the nutrients and put them back into the soil for other forest plants to use. Dead wood is an important reservoir of organic matter in forests and a source of soil formation. Decaying and dead wood host diverse communities of bacteria and fungi.

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Turkey tail fungus, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mother Archetypes

Wood tissues of tree stems include the outer bark, cork cambium, inner bark (phloem), vascular cambium, outer xylem (living sapwood), and the inner xylem (non-living heartwood). The outer bark provides a non-living barrier between the inner tree and harmful factors in the environment, such as fire, insects, and diseases. The cork cambium (phellogen) produces bark cells. The vascular cambium produces both the phloem cells (principal food-conducting tissue) and xylem cells of the sapwood (the main water storage and conducting tissue) and heartwood.

stages of tree life

Forest ecologists defined five broad stages in tree decay, shown by the condition of the bark and wood and presence of insects and other animals. The first two stages evolve rapidly; much more time elapses in the later stages, when the tree sags to the ground. These latter stages can take decades for the tree to break down completely and surrender all of itself back to the forest. A fallen tree nurtures, much like a “mother” archetype; it provides food, shelter, and protection to a vast community—from bears and small mammals to salamanders, invertebrates, fungus, moss and lichens. This is why fallen trees are called “nursing logs.”

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Uprooted tree covered in fungi, lichen and moss, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

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Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I stop to inspect another fallen tree lying on a bed of decaying maple, beech and oak leaves. When a fallen tree decomposes, unique new habitats are created within its body as the outer and inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood decompose at different rates, based in part on their characteristics for fine dining. For instance, the outer layers of the tree are rich in protein; inner layers are high in carbohydrates. This log—probably a sugar maple judging from what bark is left—has surrendered itself with the help of detrivores and saprophytes to decomposition and decay. The outer bark has mostly rotted and fallen away revealing an inner sapwood layer rich in varied colours, textures and incredible patterns—mostly from fungal infestations. In fact, this tree is a rich ecosystem for dozens of organisms. Wood-boring beetle larvae tunnel through the bark and wood, building their chambers and inoculating the tree with microbes. They open the tree to colonization by other microbes and small invertebrates. Slime molds, lichen, moss and fungi join in. The march of decay follows a succession of steps. Even fungi are followed by yet other fungi in the process as one form creates the right condition for another form.

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Rotting maple log, covered in carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most hardwoods take several decades to decompose and surrender all of themselves back to the forest. In western Canada in the westcoast old growth forest, trees like cedars can take over a hundred years to decay once they’re down. The maple log I’m studying in this Carolinian forest looks like it’s been lying on the ground for a while, certainly several years. The bark has fragmented and mostly fallen away, revealing layers of sapwood in differing stages of infestation and decay. Some sapwood is fragmented and cracked into blocks and in places looks like stacked bones.

Black lines as though drawn by a child’s paintbrush flow through much of the sapwood; these winding thick streaks of black known as “zone lines” are in fact clumps of dark mycelia, which cause “spalting,” the colouration of wood by fungus. According to mycologist Jens Petersen, these zone lines prevent “a hostile takeover by mycelia” from any interloping fungi. Most common trees that experience spalting include birch, maple, and beech. Two common fungi that cause spalting have colonized my maple log. They’re both carbon cushion fungi.

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Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Brittle cinder (Kretzschmaria deusta) resembles burnt wood at maturity. Deusta means “burned up” referring to the charred appearance of the fungus. Hypoxylon forms a “velvety” grey-greenish cushion or mat (stroma). As the Hypoxylon ages, it blackens and hardens and tiny, embedded fruitbodies (perithecia) show up like pimples over the surface of the crust.

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Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Much of the exposed outer wood layer looks as though it has been spray painted with a green to blue-black layer. The “paint” is caused by the green-stain fungus (Chlorociboria) and blue-stain fungus (Ceratocystis). The blue-green stain is a metabolite called xylindein. Chlorociboria and Ceratocystis are also spalter fungi, producing a pigment that changes the color of the wood where they grow. While zone lines that create spalting don’t damage wood, the fungus responsible most likely does.

Spalting is common because of the way fungi colonize, in waves of primary and secondary colonizers. Primary colonizers initially capture and control the resource, change the pH and structure of the wood, then must defend against the secondary colonizers now able to colonize the changed wood.

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Details of 16th century German bureaus containing blue-green spalted wood by the elf-cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens

Wood that is stained green, blue or blue-green by spalting fungi has been and continues to be valued for inlaid woodwork. In an article called “Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia” Daniel Elkind writes of how “the technique of intarsia–the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images–has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship.” The article explores “the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from the most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus.”

Shapeshifting Characters

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Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find moss everywhere in the forest, including beneath the forest floor. Moss is a ubiquitous character, adapting itself to different situations and scenarios. Like a shapeshifter, moss is at once coy, hiding beneath rotting leaf litter, stealthy and curious as it creeps up the feet of huge cedars, and exuberant as it unabashedly drapes itself over every possible surface such as logs, twigs and rocks, and then proceeds to procreate for all to see.

Moss is a non-vascular plant that helps create soil; moss also filters and retains water, stabilizes the ground and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Science tells us that mosses are important regulators of soil hydroclimate and nutrient cycling in forests, particularly in boreal ecosystems, bolstering their resilience. Mosses help with nutrient cycling because they can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants.

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Green moss gametophyte with sporophytes growing out of it (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mosses thrive in the wet winter and spring, providing brilliant green to an otherwise brown-gray environment. Even when covered in snow (or a bed of leaves), moss continues its growth cycle, usually in the leafy gametophyte stage. When the winter is moderate, like it is near Toronto, sporophyte structures can already appear on stalks that hold a capsule full of spores.  In the spring the capsules release spores that can each create a new moss individual. Moss is quietly, gloriously profligate.

Symbiotic Characters

Many twigs strewn on the leaf-covered forest floor are covered in grey-green lichen with leaf-like, lobes. On close inspection, the lichen thallus contains abundant cup-shaped fruiting bodies. I identify the lichen as Physchia stellaris, common and widespread in Ontario and typically pioneering on the bark of twigs—especially of poplars, and alders.

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Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia), Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lichens are a cooperative character; two characters in one, really. Lichens are a complex symbiotic association of two or more fungi and algae (some also partner up with a yeast). The algae in lichens (called phycobiont or photobiont) photosynthesize and the fungus (mycobiont) provides protection for the photobiont. Both the algae and fungus absorb water, minerals, and pollutants from the air, through rain and dust. In sexual reproduction, the mycobiont produces fruiting bodies, often cup-shaped, called apothecia that release ascospores. The spores must find a compatible photobiont to create a lichen. They depend on each other for resources—from food to shelter and protection.

Forest as Character

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Sunset in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy personified trees as interpreters between Nature and humanity: from the “sobbing breaths” of a fir plantation to the stillness of trees in a quiet fog, standing “in an attitude of intentness, as if they waited longingly for a wind to come and rock them.” Trees, meadows, winding brooks and country roads were far more than back-drop for Hardy’s world and his stories. Elements of the natural world were characters in their own right that impacted the other characters in a world dominated by nature.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story, particularly in allegories that rely strongly on metaphor. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
—excerpted from The Ecology of Story: World as Character

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

The Aggressive Symbiosis of SARS-CoV-2: Seeking Balance in an Unbalanced World

SARS-CoV-2

SARS-CoV-2

In the following scene of my upcoming speculative novel “Thalweg” (set in 2053 Toronto) one of my characters, Daniel–who is a bit of a conspiracy theorist–is trapped in an old abandoned garage, about to fight off a pack of stray dogs. His feverish mind thinks back to the COVID-19 pandemic:

“The official story was that SARS-CoV-2, which caused the COVID-19 pandemic of the early ‘20s resulted from the recombination of two previous viruses in some host—supposedly a bat or pangolin—which then ended up in a Wuhun wet market; there, the recombined virus gleefully jumped species to humans, who, in turn, gleefully spread it worldwide. But, according to the study at the Wuhun hospital, patient zero hadn’t been anywhere near the wet market. So, where did the virus really come from?…”

Daniel then recalls a conversation he had–when he still had a job–with colleague Lynna in which he  suggested that the chimera virus–and the others that followed–were developed as a bioweapon through Gain-of-Function research and they somehow leaked into the public. To her scoff, he reminded her that the aim of GOF research is to induce an increase in the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens. He then provided numerous examples involving Influenza, SARS, and MERS.

Influenza virus

Influenza virus

Did she know, for instance, that in 2014 Obama put a funding moratorium on all GOFR experiments that might enhance virus pathogenicity or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route. Then in 2017, under the Trump administration, the NIH turned it all back on.

squirrel monkey

Squirrel monkey

Lynna responded calmly with a convincing argument, based on science and ecology. “Sure, they could be that,” she acknowledged thoughtfully. “Or they could simply be more cases of co-evolution and aggressive symbiosis…” Then she informed Daniel that viruses commonly form aggressive relationships with their hosts. Every monkey, baboon, chimpanzee and gorilla is carrying at least ten different species of symbiotic viruses, she said. The herpes-B virus that chums with the squirrel monkey is one example. The virus and an immunity to it passes harmlessly from mother to baby monkey. If a rival species like the marmoset monkey invades their territory, the virus jumps species and wipes out the challenger by inducing cancer in the competing marmoset monkey. Ebola and hantavirus outbreaks follow a similar pattern of “aggressive symbiosis.”

This community-symbiosis functions like an ecosystem’s “immune system” that protects its own from the encroachment of invading species—even when that invading species is us.

—excerpt from Nina Munteanu’s “Thalweg” (upcoming)

 

Aggressive Symbiosis & Virus X

Virus X FrankRyanIn his book Virus X, Dr. Frank Ryan coined the term aggressive symbiosis to explain a common form of symbiosis where one or both symbiotic partners demonstrates an aggressive and potentially harmful effect on the other’s competitor or potential predator. Examples abound, but a few are worth mentioning. In South American forests, a species of acacia tree produces a waxy berry of protein at the ends of its leaves that provides nourishment for the growing infants of the ant colony residing in the tree. The ants, in turn, not only keep the foliage clear of herbivores and preying insects through a stinging assault, but they make hunting forays into the wilderness of the tree, destroying the growing shoots of potential rivals to the acacia.

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Bamboo forest near Kyoto, Japan (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Borneo, a species of rattan cane has developed a symbiotic relationship with a species of ants. The ants make a nest around the cane and drink its sweet sap. The ants, in turn, protect the cane. When a herbivore approaches to feed on the leaves, the ants attack.

Ryan draws an analogy between this aggressive symbiotic partnership and that of new zoonotic agents of disease. He argues that when it comes to emerging viruses, animals are the cane and ants are the virus.

Viruses & Zoonotic Agents of Disease

Ryan suggests that Ebola and hantavirus outbreaks follow a pattern of aggressive symbiosis. This may explain why Ebola is so virulent. The Ebola virus is so fierce that victims don’t make it very far to infect others, suggesting that the virus is an evolutionary failure. However, if the virus is acting as an aggressive symbiont, it may be fulfilling its evolutionary purpose by protecting a host species we haven’t yet identified.

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Azteks meet Spaniards who bring smallpox

Historian William H. McNeill suggested that a form of aggressive symbiosis played a key role in the history of human civilization. “At every level of organization—molecular, cellular, organismic, and social—one confronts equilibrium [symbiotic] patterns. Within such equilibria, any alteration from ‘outside’ tends to provoke compensatory changes [aggressive symbiosis] throughout the system to minimize overall upheaval.”

One of a legacy of examples of aggressive symbiosis in history includes smallpox: the Europeans introduced smallpox (symbiotically co-evolved with them) to the Aztecs with devastating results. Other examples of aggressive symbiosis include measles, malaria, and yellow fever.

 

Wet Markets & Factory Farming

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Inhumane and unsafe treatment of animals in wet market in China

The National Observer gives a vivid description of the potential for zoonotic viral spread in the world’s wet markets, particularly in Wuhun:

“Dozens of species that rarely, if ever, come in contact with one another in the wild ― fish, turtles, snakes, bamboo rats, bats, even foxes and wolf cubs ― are confined in close quarters, waiting to be butchered and sold. The animals are often stressed, dehydrated and shedding live viruses; the floors, stalls and tables are covered in blood, feces and other bodily fluids.

This is the scene at many of China’s so-called “wet markets,” where a poorly regulated wildlife trade thrives and creates conditions that experts say are ideal for spawning new diseases.

“You could not design a better way of creating pandemics,” said Joe Walston, head of global conservation at the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society. “It’s really the perfect mechanism, not just for the Wuhan coronavirus but for the next ones that will undoubtedly emerge sooner rather than later.”

Zoonotic diseases, or diseases that can leap from animals to humans, are not uncommon and they don’t always come from exotic animals, writes Ari Solomon of Veganista. “Many come from the animals we regularly farm and eat. The 1918 influenza pandemic, or the Spanish flu, infected more than 500 million people and killed between 40-50 million worldwide. It is now commonly believed that the disease originated in birds. When the H1N1 virus, the same strain that caused the Spanish flu, showed up again in 2009, it first emerged in pigs. Tuberculosis, mad cow disease, and pig MRSA also came from animals exploited for food.”

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Happy cows in Seelisberg, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In 2004, Linda Saif, with the Department of Food Animal Health Research Program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center summarizes a number of farm and domestic animal reservoirs of zoonotic corona viruses that have caused human diseases historically and many that may still do so through recombinations. Animals have included cows (BCoV), pigs (PEDV and PRCV), chickens (IBV, turkeys, cats (FCoV and FIPV), ferrets and macaques. Saif cautions that, given an estimated 75% of newly emerging human diseases arise as zoonoses (from wild or farm animals), interspecies transmission poses a continued threat to human health.

Wet markets aren’t the only places where animals are kept under and treated with cruelty and lack of any compassion or kindness:

“Thanks to the advent of factory farming, billions of animals are routinely kept in crammed, filthy conditions that cause them extreme stress. This abhorrent practice creates the perfect breeding ground for new diseases to thrive. Add to that the fact that we regularly feed factory farmed animals low-doses of antibiotics and we really have a recipe for disaster.”—Ari Solomon, Veganista

It comes down to balance. Something about which the human species has much to learn.

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Buttressed fig tree in Costa Maya (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It is clear to me that these pandemics are exacerbated—if not outright caused by—our dense over-population and an exploitation mentality: our encroachment and defilement of natural habitats and the life that inhabits them. Gaia is suggesting that we live more lightly on this planet. Her ecosystems are responding to our aggression with equal aggression. And, make no mistake, we won’t win that battle. Just as we won’t win the battle with changing climate. It’s time to learn humility as a species in a diverse world. Time to cultivate respect for our life-giving environment. Time to learn the power of  kindness.

The National Observer recently ran an article stating that: “COVID-19 and other health endemics are directly connected to climate change and deforestation, according to Indigenous leaders from around the world who gathered on March 13, in New York City, for a panel on Indigenous rights, deforestation and related health endemics.” The virus is telling the world what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for thousands of years: that “if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this and even worse threats,” said Levi Sucre Romero, a BriBri Indigenous person from Costa Rica and co-ordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).

Many environmental experts agree that the novel coronavirus will only be the first in waves of pandemics we can expect if we ignore links between infectious diseases and the destruction of the natural world.

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Bamboo, Japan (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“I’m absolutely sure that there are going to be more diseases like this in future if we continue with our practices of destroying the natural world,” said marine ecologist Dr Enric Sala to the Independent.

 

Reiterating the work of Dr. Frank Ryan, David Quammen, author of 2012 Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic told the Independent: “Our highly diverse ecosystems are filled with many species of wild animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. All of that biological diversity contains unique viruses.” This unique community has developed over many many years into a functional community symbiosis in which viruses play an important part.

“There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it,” says Richard Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

He and others are developing the emerging discipline of planetary health, which looks at the links between human and ecosystem health.

The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before, said Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL to The Guardian.

“We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,” says Jones. “Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from…We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”

“It’s like if you demolish an old barn then dust flies. When you demolish a tropical forest, viruses fly. Those moments of destruction represent opportunity for unfamiliar viruses to get into humans and take hold.”–David Quammen

It’s aggression meeting aggression.

“Community-symbiosis functions like an ecosystem’s ‘immune system’ that protects its own from the encroachment of invading species—even when that invading species is us.”–Lynna Dresden, in Nina Munteanu’s Thalweg

 

EcologyOfStoryFor more on “ecology” and a good summary and description of environmental factors like aggressive symbiosis and other ecological relationships, read my book “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” (Pixl Press, 2019).

Glossary of Terms: 

Aggressive Symbiosis: a common form of symbiosis where one or both symbiotic partners demonstrates an aggressive and potentially harmful effect on the other’s competitor or potential predator (Ryan, 1997).

Co-evolution: when two or more species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution through the process of natural selection and other processes. 

Gain-of-Function Research (GOFR): involves experimentation that aims or is expected to (and/or, perhaps, actually does) increase the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens (Selgelid, 2016). 

Patient Zero: the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases. 

Recombination: the process by which pieces of DNA are broken and recombined to produce new combinations of alleles. This recombination process creates genetic diversity at the level of genes that reflects differences in the DNA sequences of different organisms.

Symbiosis: Greek for “companionship” describes a close and long term interaction between two organisms that may be beneficial (mutualism), beneficial to one with no effect on the other (commensalism), or beneficial to one at the expense of the other (parasitism). (Munteanu, 2019).

Zoonosis: a zoonotic disease, or zoonosis, is one that can be transmitted from animals, either wild or domesticated, to humans (Haenan et al., 2013).

Virus: a sub-microscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. The virus directs the cell machinery to produce more viruses. Most have either RNA or DNA as their genetic material.

 

References:

Frazer, Jennifer. 2015. “Root Fungi Can Turn Pine Trees Into Carnivores—or at Least Accomplices.” Scientific American, May 12, 2015. Online: https://blogs. scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/root-fungi-can-turn-pine-trees-into- carnivores-8212-or-at-least-accomplices/

Munteanu, N. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.” Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 198pp. (Section 2.7 Evolutionary Strategies)

Munteanu, N. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto.

Ryan, Frank, M.D. 1997. “Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues.” Little, Brown and Company, New York, N.Y. 430pp.

Ryan, Frank, M.D. 2009. “Virolution.” Harper Collins, London, UK. 390pp.

Saif, Linda J. 2004. “Animal Coronaviruses: lessons for SARS.” In: “Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak: Workshop Summary.” National Academies Press (US), Kobler S., Mahmoud A., Lemon S., et. al. editors. Washington (DC).

Selgelid, Michael J. 2016. “Gain-of-Function Research: Ethical Analysis.” Sci Eng Ethics 22(4): 923-964.

VanLoon, J. 2000. “Parasite politics: on the significance of symbiosis and assemblage in theorizing community formations.” In: Pierson C and Tormey S (eds.), Politics at the Edge (London, UK: Political Studies Association)

Villarreal LP, Defilippis VR, and Gottlieb KA. 2000. “Acute and persistent viral life strategies and their relationship to emerging diseases.” Virology 272:1-6. Online: http://bird uexposed.com/resources/Villarreal1.pdf

Wohlleben, Peter. 2015. “The Hidden Life of Trees.” Greystone Books, Vancouver, BC. 272pp.

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Ecology, Story & Stranger Things

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Illustration by Anne Moody, typology & design by Costi Gurgu

One of the lectures I give in my science fiction writing course and conference workshops is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. My upcoming writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character” addresses this subject with examples from a wide range of published fiction. The book will be released in June/July of 2019 by Pixl Press.

In my lecture (and book) I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction.

Students perk up when I bring up some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

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Alcon blue butterfly and caterpillar with ant

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring for its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

Extremophiles & Anhydrobiosis

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Tardigrade on moss

When I bring in the subject of extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas.

I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own.

Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

Talking Trees

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Dr. Suzanne Simard

UBC researcher Suzanne Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest.

This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root).

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mycelium connects trees underground

These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Fatal Attractions & Natural Bullies

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Bracken fern fronds

The “ordinary” Bracken fern thrives in a wide range of conditions on virtually every continent (except Antarctica). That’s because it plays the “long game” by having several strategies to outlive and outcompete its surrounding nemeses.

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The symbiosis of Bracken fern and ant

Strategies include a loose lifestyle such as several ways to reproduce and grow to accommodate seasons, drought and burning; a shady arrangement with the local thugs (aggressive ants) who protect it for its tasty nectar; use of cyanide and ecdysones by its young shoots; and tough carcinogenic fronds that contain glass-like silicates.

Despite its many uses by humans (e.g., used for potash fertilizer, heating fuel, roofing, bedding for animals), the Bracken fern is considered a pest. In truth, it is a hardy versatile adapter to changing environments. And that is what our climate changing world is fast becoming.

I highly recommend the works of Annie Dillard and Loren Eiseley for wonderful and bizarre examples of natural wonders that resonate with metaphor.

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Stream in coastal rainforest on Vancouver Island, BC (photo by Kevin Klassen)

I also recommend my upcoming book “Ecology of Story” (Pixl Press), which will showcase a diverse set of examples from the literature of metaphoric environment and creatures. “Ecology of Story” is due for release in Summer of 2019. Look for it on Amazon, Kobo, and a fine bookstore near you. Two other books in my writing guide series include: “The Fiction Writer” and “The Journal Writer“.

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nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.