Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

A splatter of blood and bird poo on the glass, a heap of dusky feathers on the front lawn: all there was to show that a sparrow-hawk had chased a pigeon to its death against the window, plucked and eaten it. “Nature red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. No more soaring flight for a pigeon – a welcome meal for a hawk.

My generation of naturalist grew up with the Darwinian model of the natural world. Adaptability to environmental change and balance of predator and prey held things in equilibrium and drove evolution. It seemed harsh but it worked, and the fossil record made fascinating study. Consider an oak wood. Caterpillars in treetops are made of leaves, the blue-tit foraging in the foliage is made of caterpillars, the hawk dashing between the trees is made of blue-tits and when it dies will rot and feed next year’s leaves. It’s only in the last two decades that I’ve become aware of an alternative model. Inter-dependence is an equally good – perhaps better – strategy for long term survival. And symbiosis is an equally fascinating field of study.

Even among warm-blooded creatures, partnership is everywhere. Think of starlings riding sheep and cattle and removing tasty snacks of ticks and lice as do ox-peckers in Africa. Think of tiny fish accompanying huge predators to groom and clean them – even their teeth! Among insects, that pre-date mammals by millennia and form the bulk of the Earth’s biomass, working together is more usual. Flowers have entered into partnership with insect, bird or bat pollinators, even adapting structure and colours to facilitate and feed their helpers. Colonial insects like ants and bees have created communities comprising different categories of individuals that function like a single organism. Although this might smack too much of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for your taste with no room for individual creativity and enterprise. you cannot deny their long-term success.

My eyes have been further opened by reading a new book– Entangled Lives by Merlin Sheldrake – a study of fungal forms which made me realise how very species-centric our attitudes to other life-forms are.

He features recent research investigating the mycelium – the mass of filaments forming the main body of a fungus. These hyphae recycle dead wood, recapturing vital trace elements. Attaching to tree roots they trade these for sugars which enable them to grow – underlying the whole woodland floor. They move nutrients and water around the tree community and, It’s believed, even carry information. So, we can see our oak wood as an interconnected cooperative community. I know which vision I prefer.

Finally, as this devastating year draws to an end, I wish us all Peace on Earth and Good Will among Humankind.