The Fungibility of the Biome

18 November 2009


What could be more cheerful that finding oneself at the corner of Sunshine Drive and Friendly Way? That is exactly where I find myself now, just steps away from the Gulf Coast of Florida. I find myself immediately struck by the biological differences with that which is familiar to me, the essential novelty of all that I see around me. I have never seen a horseshoe crab, but no sooner did I walk to the waterfront than I happened upon a shell, and then another, and another. The sight of a horseshoe crab brings to mind the lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages” (one of the Four Quartets):

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.

Eliot has here captured with a poet’s sensibility and sensitivity the essential otherness and alienness of an “earlier and other creation” — and the horseshoe crab resembles nothing so much as a trilobite, that is, the horseshoe crab suggests life so ancient as to be long extinct.

Biology Online defines a biome as, “A major ecological community of organisms adapted to a particular climatic or environmental condition on a large geographic area in which they occur.” A biome is thus one of the most comprehensive of biological concepts, a primary subdivision of the ecosystem (a kind of ecosystem), though “biome” is sometimes used interchangeably with “ecosystem” while “biosphere” is reserved for the more comprehensive concept of the totality of all living things on earth. (We require yet another more comprehensive concept to identity all living things in the universe, which may or may not be identical with all living things on the earth.)

The picturesque moss that one sees hanging on trees also hangs on eletrical lines.

There is more than one way to divide the biosphere into biomes, and more than one scheme of biome classification. The Wikipedia entry on biomes places Florida in the “subtroptical rainforest” biome and Oregon in the “temperate coniferous forest” biome. However we choose to name and classify these distinct ecosystems, they are distinct. In Oregon, apple trees grow wild and drop their produce upon the ground; in Florida, orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees drop their produce upon the ground. The difference in climate means a difference in biome, and a difference in biome means a difference in life.

A map from Wikipedia detailing terrestrial biomes.

As one moves from place to place the vegetation changes gradually and overlaps substantially from one location to another, but the cumulative effect over distance is that the surrounding biomass is entirely, albeit incrementally, replaced. It is like the living equivalent of the process of fossilization, when the tissue of a bone is incrementally replaced with minerals that ultimately turn flesh into stone. When flesh turns to stone in moments, we know that we are in a fairy tale, but when flesh turns to stone over aeons, we are in the realm of natural history. But it is no less fantastic for being natural history instead of a fairy tale.

The Gulf Coast of Florida, only steps away from the corner of Sunshine Drive and Friendly Way.

It is perhaps equally fantastic that, despite this replacement of a biome over time and distance, that we are able to move continuously from one to the other. There is a sense in which it is truly remarkable that the biomass that surrounds us, envelops us, embodied in vegetation and wildlife, can be entirely changed (or nearly entirely changed) and we remain virtually unaffected by the change. We might call this the fungibility of the biome. We note the change of the smell of the air, the different colors and textures that surround us, the differences in temperature and humidity, and in the taste of the water, but it continues to support us, and, in fact, without that surrounding biomass we would perish.

On the corner of Sunshine Drive and Friendly Way.

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