By Katie Finch
Fairytale author, Hans Christian Andersen wrote, “The whole world is a series of miracles, but we’re so used to them that we call them everyday things”. In a park on a summer day, I looked at the ordinary things around me and tried to think about at least one of them as a miracle.
I settled on the sun. Nothing defines summer more than the sun. Driving the rhythms of our life, it rises early and sets late. It is what we both bask in and screen ourselves from. The tilt of the earth toward and away from the sun creates the seasons. It is certainly an everyday thing. But how about miraculous?
I looked up (not directly, of course) in wonder at the sun. It is a star. In the words of the band, They Might Be Giants “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace, where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees.”
It is the closest star to Earth, at 93 million miles away. It takes about 8 minutes and 20 seconds for sunlight to reach the Earth. If you are reading this article during the day, the light that is allowing you to see the last word of the article was generated at the sun at about the time you read the first word. And it is close enough, but still far enough away, that its heat and light powers almost every living thing on this planet, directly or indirectly.
Plants (and some bacteria and algae) have evolved to harness the energy of the sun to make their own food. Chlorophyll in the cells absorbs light and converts it to energy. With this energy, the nonliving becomes the living. Water and carbon dioxide are changed into carbohydrates. It is these carbohydrates that fuel plant growth and reproduction.
It is also this process that produces and maintains the oxygen levels on earth. As molecules of water and carbon dioxide are broken and rearranged, oxygen is left over. While all plants, including trees produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis, the largest producer of oxygen on Earth is actually plankton in the oceans. It is estimated that these miniscule plants, algae and bacteria produce 50% or more of the oxygen on earth through photosynthesis. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a tiny bacteria called Prochlorococcus, produces up to 20% of the Earth’s oxygen. This is more than all the tropical rainforests on land produce.
Plants have adapted ways of reaching the sun when they need. The woody shrubs and bushes in this park have a woody structure to stand tall and get their leaves closest to the sun as possible. Vines climb and cling to reach a sunny spot. Spring ephemeral wildflowers leaf out and bloom while overhead tree branches are still bare, allowing sunlight filter to the forest floor.
Look at the ways plants grow. The peach tree growing from a seed inside leans its whole body toward the window. In the woods, trees sometimes grow at strange angles to take advantage of the little pockets of light. Some trees grow larger “shade leaves” on their lower branches, creating a larger surface to collect the sun’s energy than those in the sun.
These plants in turn, are the foundation for the animals that comes after. A squishy, green caterpillar falls from the oak shading my picnic table. Perhaps it was getting away from a chickadee looking for lunch. And that foraging chickadee is aware of the threat of the Cooper’s Hawk soaring overhead. Soon, the caterpillar starts inching its way up the silky strand to return to eat the leaves of the oak that stands in the sunshine. And so the links on the food chain continue.
A bumblebee lands on a sunny spot on the table. Many animals use the sun to warm up their bodies. I think of my cat probably laying in the sunny spot on the living room carpet. It is not until the sun warms the earth and water that frogs, snakes, turtles and salamanders emerge. These and other cold-blooded animals require the heat from the sun for their bodies to become active. They cannot regulate their body temperature internally but rely on the environment to warm them.
We are not that different than animals. Vitamin D, an essential nutrient for our bodies, is created by exposing our skin to UVB light. I don’t think I have extreme reactions to the lack of sunlight like some do with Season Affective Disorder. However, I can feel a change in my mood and energy levels when the sun is out. It is enough that I refer to myself as solar powered.
We navigate and tell time by the sun, as do animals. Many animal’s seasonal changes are driven, not by temperature, but by the shortening or lengthening of daylight. It is thought that migrating Monarch butterflies find the way to Mexico, in part, by the position of the sun throughout the day.
Outside of astronomers, we don’t actually see the sun. It is not an object we look at directly most of the time. We mostly see what it produces. We feel the effects of it being. We experience its power in the green and growing life on our planet through our breath, food, and shelter. We use it to find our place. We live because of it. Perhaps it is a miracle. Or not. Perhaps it is just how you look at it.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Katie Finch is an Educator at Audubon.