Embracing Your Future…The EBM

Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain—Leonardo daVinci

You pause at the front door of the eco-house that you and your partner designed in Vancouver’s Point Grey and pull up the collar of your jacket. The air is fresh with the promise of snow and you smile with thoughts of spring skiing at Whistler.

You glance at the time display on your Smart Glasses. You’ve decided to forego the WaveGate and walk to the café; you have plenty of time to walk through the hilly forested streets, with a view of English Bay. You want to check out the refurbished solar-house on Locarno Cresent that your company helped design. Based on a living model of Biomimicry, the house is the latest iteration of your company’s “symbiosis” model of 100% sustainability, in which people live in a cooperative and synergistic partnership with their environment. The house is an intelligent organic facility with self-cleaning floors and walls; heated, fueled and lit by organisms in a commensal relationship. Everything works on a natural cycle of harmonious renewal and natural evolution. You smile, rather self-pleased. It has taken you a few years to convince the city council to accept this new model in community design. Now, it’s happening everywhere.

It’s April 12, 2074. A special day. And a special year. The year of the wooden horse in the Chinese calendar. Also called the green horse, it’s associated with spring, growth and vitality. The horse symbolizes nobility, class speed and perseverance. Horse energy is pure unbridled spirit. Playful, wild and independent, the horse has a refined instinct that flows through action and movement. Together, these symbols promise both chaos and great opportunity. And transformation.

The year of the wooden horse only occurs every sixty years. And sixty years ago today your mom turned sixty. You release a boyish grin at what you intend to do in celebration. On that day, sixty years ago, she celebrated her sixtieth birthday with the release of Natural Selection, her collection of speculative short stories about human evolution, AI, genetic manipulation, transhumanism, and the human-‘machine’ interface. She also celebrated the local printing of Metaverse, the third book of her space detective trilogy, The Splintered Universe. It was the second book to be printed by Toronto Public Library’s newly acquired Espresso Book Machine; one of only two EBMs in Toronto at the time.

A smile slants across your face as you remember what libraries and bookstores used to look like then. Both were struggling with a changing paradigm of reading, writing and publishing. Many of the older folk feared that books—print books, particularly—were going extinct as more exciting channels of communication like videos, interactive games and instant social networking took over. Of course, that didn’t happen. “Story” and “storytelling” were simply evolving and the paradigm shift simply embraced a new model that incorporated more diverse expression. You remember conversations with your mom about Chapters-Indigo, whose face changed from a bookstore to a gift store and tchotchke filled more and more of the storefront. As large bookstores struggled to dominate, the EBM—like its lithe mammal cousins in the Cenozoic Era—created a new niche for itself: the book ATM.

The size of a Smart Car, the EBM could fit nicely in a stylish café, housing and dispensing—Tardis-style—many more books than its diminutive size. In 2014, the EBM carried over eight million titles, including commercial books and out-of print gems. That number has tripled as virtually every publisher embraced the Book ATM model to sell books.

You inhale the tantalizing aroma of freshly ground and brewed coffee before you reach Zardoz Café. The retro-style café is a converted Edwardian-style house with high arched windows and a living roof overlooked by tall sycamore trees. You climb the stairs and enter the café. Its 2020’s style interior that your company helped design is decorated in earthy tones, avant-garde art, a forest of dracaenas and ferns and a stepped creek, complete with goldfish and crayfish. A shiny brass Elektra Belle Epoque espresso maker sits at the bar, bestowing the finest fair trade coffee.

Your sweeping gaze notes several people at the small round tables, enjoying good coffee and conversation; your special guest hasn’t arrived yet. You spot the WaveGate at the back, resembling an old English pay phone. Next to it sits the EBM. Eager to do your deed before your guest arrives, you sidle to the coffee bar and catch Grace’s eye. She smiles; you’re a regular. You touch her wrist with your watch and the data passes onto her embedded interface. She taps her hand to process the book order—she insists that you not pay—then she makes your double-shot espresso—the old-fashioned way. As she grinds and taps and runs the machine, you and she chat about skiing this spring. Just as Grace hands you a perfect crema-topped espresso, the WaveGate shimmers briefly and then its door opens like an accordian.

Your mom emerges from the “tardis”, smartly dressed in an early-century blazer and skirt, and grinning like an urchin. She resembles the seventeenth Doctor a bit, you decide—the first female Doctor Who, finally! Somehow—you don’t know how she does it—her old-fashioned style manages to embrace “retro-cool”. She’s arrived from Switzerland, where she is house and cat-sitting for good friends in Gruyeres. From there she still commutes—Tardis-style—as sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto, where she maintains a tiny book-festooned office.

“Kevy!” she squeals like a girl, obviously happy to see you. You don’t cringe; you’ve grown accustomed to the ripples of interest your mom’s unalloyed enthusiasm usually creates.

“Happy birthday, Mom!” You seize her in a hug. “I’m glad you made it for your 120th birthday.” Traveling the WaveGate suits her, you consider.

“I like the tardis better than you, I think,” she says, smiling sideways at you with knowing. She’s right; you prefer the old-fashioned way of traveling, without having to reconfigure your molecules from one place to another. In fact, you prefer the old-fashioned way of doing a lot of things, you decide with an inner smile.

“I have a surprise for you, Mom,” you say with a knowing grin. Your mom likes surprises. Her eyes light up and she beams at you. You glance at Grace with a conspiratorial look. She takes the cue and starts the EBM.

“Over here,” you say, steering your mom toward the EBM, already humming like an old tomcat getting its chin scratched. Your mom bends down to watch the pages spew out of the paper holder and stack neatly in a tray, then get snatched by robotic fingers as a colour cover is created then laid below, ready to envelope the book interior. After the gluing and binding, the robots trim the book on three sides then summarily send it sliding out a chute on the side.

Your mom has guessed what the book is; but she still squeals with glee when she sees it. It’s Metaverse, of course; the book she first had printed on the EBM in Toronto’s Public Library sixty years ago on her birthday.

“I just thought you’d like another book,” you say with a laugh. Like she needs another book. But this one’s special; it’s sixty years old today. Just like she was, sixty years ago—today. You pull out your PAL and point at your mom, as she seizes the perfectly bound book. “Let me take your picture!”

She poses with the book, looking like a kid with candy. You check the image and laugh. “There it is. You don’t look a year over sixty!” You grin at your 120-year old mother.

“And you don’t look a day over twenty-three!” she teases back. You give her a slanted smile. You’re eighty-three. Beaming, she goes on, “I remember doing this exact thing sixty years ago in Toronto! Those same feelings of overwhelming gratitude and wonder are still there,” she confides. “I remember telling the CBC reporter who covered the EBM launch that it felt like a birthing.” She throws me a crooked grin. “Only the labour was on the computer instead of in the hospital!”

Visibly pleased and touched, she snatches me in a bear hug.

“This is the best present a mom could get from her son. Thanks for remembering. It’s been an incredible ride and it’s all been worth it.”

“Join me in a coffee; then I have a house to show you…” you say, smiling with pride.

The Espresso Book Machine

Many bookstores, libraries, and universities around the world are hosting the Espresso Book Machine® (EBM) by On Demand Books LLC (and associated with Lightning-Ingram). The EBM makes millions of titles available via the EspressNet® software and produces quality paperbacks in minutes at point of sale. The EBM is not a print-on-demand solution, but a powerful new digital-to-print channel that eliminates lost sales due to out-of-stock inventory or the hassle of returns.

Advantages:

  • Readers: millions of books, multiple languages, made on demand for you.
  • Bookstores, Libraries and other Retailers: sell (or lend) more titles without the extra inventory; capture the growing self-publishing market.
  • Publishers: the EBM offers an additional sales channel and greater visibility to a publisher’s titles. It also avoids out-of-stocks and eliminates returns.
  • Authors: earn additional income otherwise lost through the used-book market.

Old maple tree in Jackson Creek Park in December snow, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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 Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Darwin’s Paradox Revisited: Compassion and Evolution

In 2007, when I started my first blog, The Alien Next Door, I wrote an article that explored the term “Darwin’s Paradox”—it’s not just the title of my science fiction thriller Darwin’s Paradox released that year by Dragon Moon Press—but  a term coined by scientists to describe the paradoxical phenomenon exhibited by coral reefs.

Defying The Laws of Thermodynamics

Darwin described coral reefs as oases in the desert of the ocean. Coral reefs comprise one of the richest ecosystems on Earth, in apparent violation of the laws of thermodynamics (high productivity in a low-productivity environment). Productivity ranges from 50 to 250 times more than the surrounding ocean. How do they thrive in crystal-clear water, largely devoid of nutrients? Part of the answer lies in the coral’s efficiency in recycling nutrients like nitrate and phosphate.

First, the rough coral surface amplifies water turbulence at a microscopic level, disrupting the boundary layer that usually settles on objects under water and lets the coral “hoover” up the sparse nutrients. I stumbled upon a similar phenomenon during my grad work on temperate streams and published my serendipitous discovery in the journal Hydrobiologia. I was researching how periphyton (attached “algae”) colonized submerged glass slides and observed that the community preferred the edges of the slides because the micro-turbulence there provided more opportunity for attachment and nutrition.

Second, lots of corals also function symbiotically with specialized algae (called zooxanthelae), which provide the coral with food (through photosynthesis) and, in turn, get food from the wastes created by the coral.  

Can the science of symbiosis teach us something about another Darwin’s Paradox?

The Evolution of Compassion

In a September 2013 article in the Jewish World Review, Boston Globe reporter Jeff Jacobywrote:

“Charles Darwin struggled with a paradox: If evolution is a struggle for survival, how could generosity, compassion, and other altruistic virtues have spread through natural selection? Darwin could see the clear evolutionary benefit to groups that inculcated ethical values in their members. Imagine two competing primitive tribes, equally matched — except that ‘one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, [and] to aid and defend each other.’ (Darwin, “The Descent of Man”). There was little doubt that tribes highly endowed with such virtues ‘would spread and be victorious over other tribes.’”

“How did any tribe evolve such ethical qualities in the first place?” asks Jacoby. Brave individuals who risked their lives for others “would on average perish in larger numbers than other men.” It hardly seemed possible, Darwin conceded, that, “such virtues … could be increased through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest.” So, how did it and why?

Jacoby quotes Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, who pointed to “the central drama of civilization: Biological evolution favors individuals,” says Sacks. “But cultural evolution favors groups.… Selfishness benefits individuals [only in the short-term and only in a limited way—my comment], but it is [ultimately] disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.”

Jacoby describes the vast literature in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology that have demonstrated humanity’s hard-wired moral capacity. “We are born with an aptitude for empathy and fairness,” said Jacoby, citing recent neurological experiments that have demonstrated that an act of generosity triggers a pleasurable response in the brain.

Abraham Lincoln summarized it in seven words: “When I do good, I feel good.”  Psychologists call it the “helper’s high”. Neuroscientists and behavioral scientists are demonstrating unequivocally the benefits of altruism to our health and happiness. Scientists have designed experiments that actually trace altruism—and the pleasure we gain from it—to specific regions and systems in the brain. Key studies now provide striking evidence that our brains are wired for altruism. 

The Social Brain and the Seat of Compassion  

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Moll et al, 2006), a team of neuroscientists lead by Dr. Jordan Grafman, reported that, “when people made the decision to donate to what they felt was a worthy organization, parts of the midbrain lit up—the same region that controls cravings for food and sex.” The brain experiences a pleasurable response when we engage in good deeds that benefit others. 

Dr. Grafman found that the subgenual area in the frontal lobe near the midpoint of the brain was also strongly active when his study subjects made the decision to give to charity. The area houses many receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding. “The finding suggests that altruism and social relationships are intimately connected—in part, it may be our reliance on the benefits of strong interpersonal connections that motivates us to behave unselfishly,” reports Elizabeth Svoboda in the WallStreet Journal. The team also found that the nucleus accumbens, which contains neurons that release the pleasure chemical dopamine, was triggered when a person chose to help another.

A 2007 study headed by neuroscientist Scott Huettel and reported in Nature Neuroscience(Tankersley, et al., 2007) connects altruism to the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), an area in the upper rear of the brain that lets us perceive goal-directed actions by someone or something else. Results suggest that altruism depends on, and may have evolved from, the brain’s ability to perform the low-level perceptual task of attributing meaning and motive in the actions of others.

“Our findings are consistent with a theory that some aspects of altruism arose out of a system for perceiving the intentions and goals of others,” said Dr. Huettel. “To be altruistic, you need to see that the people you’re helping have goals, and that your actions will have consequences for them.” 

Research led by Michael Platt reported in Nature Neurosciencein 2012, showed that the anterior cingulate gyrus(ACCg) is an important nexus for the computation of shared experience and social reward. That same year researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York published research in the journal Brainthat suggested that the anterior insular cortexis the activity centre of human empathy.

I find it both interesting and exciting that these studies link different brain regions to altruistic and compassionate behavior. “There are certain to be multiple mechanism that contribute to altruism, both in individuals and over evolutionary time,” added Huettel. This is the nature of the brain, whether we look at intelligence, motivation or physical characteristics. And I am convinced that we will someday find that many other areas—if not the entire area—of the brain are involved. Moreover, researchers have shown that engaging—or even witnessing—generous acts can reduce stress, increase immunity (e.g., increased antibody levels), and longevity.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the chemical activity that happens in our heads when we commit acts of altruism. “There are multiple reward systems that have been tied to pleasurable feelings when people help others or contribute to the well being of the people around them,” she notes. These reward systems are comprised of three main chemicals that are released when we commit an act of kindness and feel pleasure: Dopamine, Oxytocin and Serotonin. According to Simon-Thomas, Dopamine is most closely related to hedonic pleasure — or pleasure derived from self; oxytocin is tied to more social pleasure — especially with regard to physical contact; and serotonin is implicated in a more broad mood state. “All three of these, again, are sort of intersecting and interacting, and depending on the context that you’re in, represent feelings of pleasure in different context,” she explains. “All these systems are activating and parallel, and sort of influencing one another as you go through life.” So when I do a good deed, I am rewarding myself with a cocktail of wonder drugs that please me and make me smile.

So, what I’ve known since I was a child is now proven: doing good deeds is mutually beneficial to the giver and the receiver.

Path through winter forest in the fog, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Altruism in All Beings

The notion that all aspects of life on this planet—not just humanity—have the capacity to act altruistically remains controversial—even among professional scientists and researchers. We are not unique in experiencing or practicing altruism, in acting altruistically and benefiting from our own altruistic acts. It is however a matter of perspective, bias and open-mindedness. Many examples of altruistic behavior and empathy exist in the rest of the living world on our planet.

Nature’s Heroes

Scientists have been demonstrating for years that cooperation among organisms and communities and the act of pure altruism (not reciprocal altruism or kin/group selection) is, in fact, more common in Nature than most of us realize. Valid examples of true altruism in the wild in many species exist. The key here is “in the wild”—not in captivity, where inherent behavior is often modified (see my Alien Next Door article “The SamaritanParadox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma”).

Despite the overwhelming evidence for altruism in every aspect of our world, some researchers continue to design experiments and then draw sweeping conclusions based on animals in captivity to suggest that only humanity possesses the ability to behave altruistically—and then again only by social-instruction (aka “the Selfish Gene” of Richard Dawkins vs. the “Social Gene” of Lynn Margulis).

Examples of altruism abound and range among mammals, birds, invertebrates and even Protista. Some examples include: dogs, cats, ducks, squirrels, wolves, mongooses, Meer cats, baboons, chimpanzees, vampire bats, dolphins, walruses, lemurs, African buffalo—to name a few.

de Waal explained that “evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (de Waal 2006). The prevalent phenomenon of altruism is Nature’s answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. “Empathy evolved in animals as the main … mechanism for [individually] directed altruism,” said deWaal. And it is empathy—not self-interest—that “causes altruism to be dispensed in accordance with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory.” deWaal further proposed that the scientific community has become polarized between evolutionary biologists on the one side, and, on the other, a discrete group of economists and anthropologists that “has invested heavily in the idea of strong reciprocity,” which demands discontinuity between humans and all other animals.

“One of the most striking consequences of the study of animal behavior,” says anthropologist Robert Sapolsky, “is the rethinking … of what it is to be human.” He notes that, “a number of realms, traditionally thought to define our humanity, have now been shown to be shared, at least partially, with nonhuman species.” (Sapolsky 2006). This makes some of us uncomfortable. To some, it threatens to make us less special. The corollary is that this demonstrates that we possess intrinsic virtue, not something “painted” on through cultural teaching or diligent personal effort. Of course, it also means that all other beings possess intrinsic value too. In the final analysis, what we generally “know” is colored by what we believe and want to continue believing.

First big snow in Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Universal Altruism and Gaia

What does all this mean? Does the very existence of altruism demonstrate the connectivity of all life on Earth? Let’s not stop there. Does the grace of altruism reflect a fractal cosmos imbued with meaning and intent? Was it the grace of altruism that allowed it all to happen in the first place? Don’t we all come from grace?

Despite struggles with acceptance for some of us, we are emerging enlightened to the fractal existence of grace and altruism embedded in the very nature and intentions of our universe.

I come full circle to my book Darwin’s Paradox, a tale of fractal intelligence and universal cooperation. A tale of emerging awareness of Self and Other as One…Evolution through cooperation… Creative DNA…Manifestation through thought and intent…Self-organization and synchronicity…A hero’s journey…and coming Home…

In this season of gratitude, we celebrate altruism in giving and in receiving graciously.

Merry Christmas!

First snow over Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Links / Books of Interest:

Altruhelp.com. 2011. “Altruism: the Helper’s High”. Altruhelp.com. http://blog.altruhelp.com/2011/04/01/altruism-the-new-high/

Atwood, Margaret. 2009. “Dept: Not Just A Four Letter Word”. Zoomer. March, 2009 (www.zoomermag.com)

Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford School of Medicine: http://ccare.stanford.edu

Jacoby, Jeff. 2013. “Darwin’s conundrum: Where does compassion come from?” http://www.jeffjacoby.com/13700/darwin-conundrum-where-does-compassion-come-from

Ridley, Matt. 1998. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Penguin Books, 304pp.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. August 31, 2013. “Hard-Wired for Giving” in The Wall Street Journal;http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324009304579041231971683854

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness” Current. 240 pp.

Munteanu, Nina. Aug, 2010. “The Samaritan Paradox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/08/samaritan-paradox-revisited-karma-is.html

Munteanu, Nina. June, 2010. “What Altruism in Animals can Teach Us About Ourselves” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/06/what-altruism-in-animals-can-teach-us.html 

Munteanu, Nina. March, 2010. “Gaia versus Medea: A Case for Altruism” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/03/gaia-versus-medea-case-for-altruism.html

Munteanu, Nina. Feb, 2009. “Margaret Atwood’s Wise Words About Dept & Altruism…A Portrait of the Artist as a Real Hero” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2009/02/margaret-atwoods-wise-words-about-debt.html

Munteanu, Nina. August, 2007. “Is James Bond an Altruist?—Part 2” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/is-james-bond-altruist-part-2.html

Nina Munteanu. August, 2007. “Co-evolution: Cooperation & Agressive Symbiosis” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/co-evolution-cooperation-agressive.html

Nina Munteanu. July, 2007. “Altruism at the Heart of True Happiness” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/07/altruism-at-heart-of-true-happiness.html

Ridley, Matt. 1998. “The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation.” Penguin Books. 304 pp. http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Virtue-Instincts-Evolution-Cooperation/dp/0140264450

References for Altruism in All Animals:

Bradley, Brenda. 1999. “Levels of Selection, Altruism, and Primate Behavior.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 74(2):171-194.

De Waal, Frans, with Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. 2006. “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goodall, Jane. 1990 Through A Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Grafman. 2006. “Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation.” In: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 103(42): 15623-15628. http://www.pnas.org/content/103/42/15623.full

Sapolsky, Robert M. 2006. “Social Cultures Among Nonhuman Primates.” Current Anthropology, 47(4):641-656.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selfishness.” Current.

Tankersley D et al.  2007. “Altruism is Associated with an Increased Response to Agency.”  Nature Neuroscience, February 2007, Vol. 10(2), pp. 150-151.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. 2006. “Altruistic Helping In Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees.” Science, 311, 1301–1303.

Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A. P., Hanus, D. & Tomasello, M. 2007. “Spontaneous Altruism By Chimpanzees and Young Children.” PloS Biology, 5(7), e184.

de Waal, F. B. M. 2008. “Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy.” Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279–300.

de Waal, F. B. M., Leimgruber, K. & Greenberg, A. R. 2008. “Giving Is Self-rewarding for Monkeys.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 105, 13685–13689.

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 Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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.

Cedar trunk base

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.

cedar log patterns2 copy

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.

Beetle bore holes pine log

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

larval tracks in pine wood

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

WoodpeckerHole on cedar

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.

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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.

A True Rocky Mountain Gem: The Antique Forest of Robson Valley

In my novel A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications) the diarist writes about the huge reservoir complex that was built in the late 2020s in the Rocky Mountain Trench to create an 800 km long reservoir system to rehydrate the United States. Of course, it’s science fiction, but it was based on real plans (NAWAPA) that went all the way to congress in the 1960s. That reservoir might have drowned the rainforest conservation corridor of Robson Valley—a conservation area that continues to experience existential risk due to development, resource harvest, and other disturbance.

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Friend Anne walks the boardwalk of the ancient forest park

In Robson Valley—tucked between the Rocky and Cariboo Mountains of East-Central British Columbia, the Fraser River nourishes an ancient rainforest matched nowhere on Earth. Massive Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)—some over 1200 years-old, 3.5 meters in diameter, and 45 meters high—thrive in this valley, nurtured by abundant groundwater flow and high humidity for healthy tree growth and reduced fire risk. “Unfortunately, this requirement for growth in wet toe-slope positions has had negative consequences for ancient cedar stands. Historically, roads and railroads were placed at the base of mountain slopes, where easy access on level roadside terrain meant that ancient cedar stands were often among the first sites chosen for logging. Ancient cedar stands now represent less than 5% of forested landscapes within the Upper Fraser River watershed.” (UNBC Plant Ecology)

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Moss-covered giant Redcedar in foreground to boardwalk

This valley contains the most extensive inland rainforest in the northern hemisphere and is the only valley in the Rocky Mountains where grizzly bears still feed on wild ocean-going salmon.

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Western Redcedar with wide buttresses

The Save-The-Cedar League also tells us that the Robson Rainforest is oroboreal: mountain-caused with boreal biome characteristics—unlike typical rainforests which are temperate-coastal or tropical. “Antique Forest” is a term used for ancient cedar-hemlock stands that have endured for more than 1000 years. One stand in Primordial Grove can be seen via a well-constructed boardwalk in a small park off Highway 16.

When I entered the ancient forest of magnificent giants with wide buttressed bases, a deep reverence came over me. No other word comes close to describing what I experienced or felt. I was enthralled and humbled by these magnificent trees, silent giants that rose into the mist like sentinels, piercing the heavens. It had rained that morning and the forest dripped with living moisture. Greens of all shades created a living mosaic of hue and texture. Moss covered everything. Lichen dripped off branches and clothed trees in crenulated patterns. The fragrance was intoxicating, a fresh pungency that woke something inside me. The smell has been variously described as “lingering”, “fresh”, “sweet”, “like pineapple when crushed”, or “almost like fresh water.” Even the breeze took on a different voice inside this living cathedral. A kind of deep hush that whispered of sacred grandness.

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Western Redcedar

I knew I was in a sacred place.

This ancient forest had been here at least a millennium; long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Atlantic shores of North America. Long before us. Referred to as “the cornerstone of northwest coastal Indian culture,” the Western Redcedar is known as the “tree of life” and “life giver.” Groves of ancient cedars were symbols of power, and gathering places for ceremonies, retreat, and contemplation.

I kept to the boardwalk—to help prevent unwanted trampling and soil compression. The boardwalk snaked past giant buttressed trees that towered several stories high and formed a feathered canopy way above me. Whenever the boardwalk came close to a giant cedar, I had to stop and touch it. The reddish bark was smooth. I smiled; many others had done the same. In unavoidable reverence.

Breathing in the tree’s exquisite fragrance, I scanned my surroundings. A rich understory of red-berried Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus), huckleberry, fern, moss, liverworts and dense ground cover painted the forest floor in varying form and colour. I imagined the diversity of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that flourished here. I’m told that scientists are still finding new species in this rainforest. UBC scientists tell us that arboreal lichen communities of the inland rainforest, especially the epiphytic cyanolichen assemblages on conifers, are among the richest in the world.

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Nina Munteanu leans against a well-loved giant Western Redcedar

 

Gentle Giant of North Temporate Rainforest: Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)

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Western Redcedar

The Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) is one of the most magnificent conifers in Pacific Northwest forests (both coastal and inland); it flourishes along the coastal fog belt from Alaska to northern California, and inland from the Pacific Ocean to Montana. The Western Redcedar is actually an arborvitae—not a true cedar; acknowledged by its name “redcedar”. True cedars only grow in the Mediterranean regions of the world. “Thuja,” is the latinism for the ancient Greek word for a now unknown, long-lost aromatic evergreen wood; “plicata,” means “folded into plaits,” which may refer to the tree’s characteristic foliage or its furrowed, stringy bark. The heartwood is pink- to red-brown to deep warm brown and highly resistant to moisture, decay and insect infestation due to the oils and acids (polyoxylphenols) it produces; it’s the phenols, in fact, that give the cedar its distinctive and pleasant aroma.

Given their extensive root system, cedars can remain standing long after they die. Western Redcedar snags (standing dead trees) can remain intact for up to 125 years. The large snags provide habitat for many cavity-nesting birds and mammals. Many species that require snags for habitats also prey on insects that use trees in a fine balance of a functional ecosystem. Examples include the pileated woodpecker, squirrels, weasels, martens, bats, owls and ducks. A fallen cedar can remain on the forest floor for over a century. “This durability is the result of a natural preservative that is toxic to decay-causing fungi. This ability does not decrease with age; in fact, it increases,” writes Jeri Chase, Oregon forester.

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Devil’s Club

Several of these live ancient cedar trees grow out of the trunks of other live ancient cedars, following a 180 million-year-old pattern observed in the closely-related redwoods (Sequoia). Basal shoots of the trunk yield genetically-superior mature trees when compared to seeds, root sprouts, other shoots or other layering phenomena.

Western Redcedar reproduces from root or branch development on fallen trees—the classic “nurse logs” often seen in northwest forests that also nourish other forest species. The magnificent bark of the Redcedar ranges in color from grey to reddish brown, and is deeply furrowed, forming long flat fibrous plates that peel and shed easily. Wildlife use the cedar in many ways. The foliage is an important winter food for elk and is browsed year-long by deer and rodents. Black bears den in the hollowed-out trunks of old trees and the cedar-dominated old growth forests provide valuable habitat for spotted owls and Vaux swifts.

Functional Ecosystem & Symbiosis

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Red-backed vole

The Robson Valley cedar-hemlock rainforest supports a diverse and efficient ecosystem from apex and keystone predator—the grizzly—to black bear, gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine, coyote, and seven ungulate species (including the Mountain caribou); all feeding on a diversity of prey and primary producers. The Mountain caribou feeds on mountain boxwood shrubs which are sheltered by the cedar and hemlock canopy layer.

An example of the symbiotic nature of the old growth cedar-hemlock forest is the red-backed vole, which resembles a large plump mouse. This forest mammal eats truffles—a type of fungus that lives underground. After digesting the truffles, voles spread the fungus around the litter layer of the forest through their droppings. The truffles help tree roots absorb soil minerals and the trees produce sugars necessary for the truffles: a win-win symbiotic relationship. The cedar and the hemlock require this alliance with truffles and voles to grow so large in the nutrient-poor soil.

The Inland Sea of the Rocky Mountain Trench (NAWAPA)

Diary Water cover finalUna stopped the car and we stared out across the longest reservoir in North America. What had once been a breathtaking view of the valley floor of the Rocky Mountain Trench was now a spectacular inland sea. It ran north-south over eight hundred kilometres and stretched several kilometres across to the foothills of the Cariboo Mountain Range. Una pointed to Mount Mica, Mount Pierre Elliot Trudeau and several other snow-covered peaks. They stood above the inland sea like sentinels of another time. Una then pointed down to what used to be Jackman Flats—mostly inundated along with McLellan River and the town of Valemont to the south. Hugging the shore of what was left of Jackman Flats was a tiny village. “That’s the new Tête Jaune Cache,” my mother told me.

If villages had karma this one was fated to drown over and over until it got it right.  Once a bustling trading town on the Grand Trunk Pacific railway, Tête Jaune Cache drowned in the early 1900s when the Fraser naturally flooded. The village relocated to the junction of the original Yellowhead 16 and 5 Highways. Villagers settled close to where the Fraser, Tête Creek, and the McLellan River joined, all fed by the meltwater from the glaciers and icefields of the Premiere Range of the Cariboo Mountains. The village drowned again in 2025. I imagined the pool halls, restaurants, saloons and trading posts crushed by the flood.

“This area used to be a prime Chinook spawning ground,” Una said. “They swam over 1,200 km from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs right there.” She pointed to the cobalt blue water below us.

The reservoir sparkled in the sun like an ocean. Steep shores rose into majestic snow-capped mountains. The village lay in a kind of cruel paradise, I thought. It was surrounded by a multi-hued forest of Lodgepole pine, Western red cedar, Douglas fir, paper birch and trembling Aspen. Directly behind the village was Mount Terry Fox and across the Robson valley mouth, to the northeast, rose Mount Goslin. Behind it, Mount Robson cut a jagged pyramid against a stunning blue sky. Wispy clouds veiled its crown. I couldn’t help thinking it was the most beautiful place I’d seen. And yet, for all its beauty, the villagers had lost their principle livelihood and food. The reservoir had destroyed the wildlife habitats and the fishery. And its people with it.

Una pointed to where the giant reservoir snaked northwest and where towns like Dunster, McBride and Prince George lay submerged beneath a silent wall of water. Her eyes suddenly misted as she told me about Slim Creek Provincial Park, between what used to be Slim and Driscoll Creeks just northwest of what used to be the community of Urling. She told me about the Oroboreal rainforest, called an “Antique Rainforest”—ancient cedar-hemlock stands over a 1000 years old. She described how massive trunks the width of a small house once rose straight up toward a kinder sun. The Primordial Grove was once home to bears, the gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine and ungulates. It was the last valley in North America where the grizzly bear once fished ocean-going salmon. Now even the salmon were no longer there, she said. Then she bent low beside me and pulled me close to her in a hug. She quietly said to me, “This is what killed Trudeau.”

I stared at her and firmly corrected, “but that was an accident.”

“Yes,” she agreed. Then added, “a planned one.”

A Diary in the Age of Water

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Moss-covered Western Redcedar

 

NAWAPA (North America Water Power Alliance)

The original NAWAPA Plan was drawn up by the Pasadena-based firm of Ralph M. Parsons Co. in 1964, and had a favorable review by Congress for completion in the 1990s. The plan—thankfully never completed—was drafted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and entailed the southward diversion of a portion (if not all) of the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers in northern Canada and Alaska, now flowing into the Arctic Ocean as well as the Peace, Liard and other rivers flowing into the Pacific by creating massive dams in the north. This would cause the rivers to flow backwards into the mountains to form vast reservoirs that would flood one-tenth of British Columbia. The water would be channeled south through the 800-km Rocky Mountain Trench Reservoir into the Northern USA, and from there along various routes into the dry regions of the South, to California and reaching as far as Mexico.

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Expanded NAWAPA XXI plan to hydrate the USA with Canadian water

NAWAPA was envisioned as the largest construction effort of all times, comprising some 369 separate projects of dams, canals, and tunnels, for water diversion. The water diversion would be accomplished through a series of connecting tunnels, canals, lakes, dams, and pump-lifts, as the trench itself is located at an elevation of 914 m (3,000 feet). To the east, a 9 m (thirty-foot) deep canal would be cut from the Peace River to Lake Superior. Its largest proposed dam would be 518 m (1,700 feet) tall, more than twice the height of Hoover Dam (at 221 m) and taller than any dam in the world today, including the Jinping-I Dam in China (at 305 m).

Conspiracy theorist and convicted fraudster Lyndon LaRouche was a principle proponent of the environmentally destructive NAWAPA plan. Although the plan was scrapped in the 1970s due to environmental concerns, it resurfaced in 1982 particularly by Parsons engineer Roland Kelley, who wrote a report called NAWAPA Plan Can Work. LaRouche and his movement revived interest more recently. In 2012 the LaRouche Political Action Committee released their NAWAPA XXI special report, which contained a detailed plan for the revival of an updated and expanded version of NAWAPA. The LaRouche movement continues to promote this outlandish plan today with support from various American politicians and industrialists.

In his book Cadillac Desert, environmental writer Marc Reisner described the plan as one of “brutal magnificence” and “unprecedented destructiveness.” Historian Ted Steinberg suggested that NAWAPA summed up “the sheer arrogance and imperial ambitions of the modern hydraulic West.”

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Old growth Redcedar-Douglas fir forest near Vancouver, BC (photo and illustration by Nina Munteanu)

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 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.