I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about cataclysms. Conventional wisdom among ecologists is that disaster is good for the system: on a small scale, it’s cleansing and replenishing, and on a large scale, it allows the kind of regime change that allows evolution to progress. I don’t disagree about the smaller-scale disasters like forest fires & earthquakes, but lately I’ve been wondering, What’s so great about cataclysms, anyway?
After all, look at the ecosystems with the most stability: rainforests, coral reefs. Heck, if it helps, think of Pandora. Places free from major upheaval tend the create the most wondrous things, the most intimate symbiotic bonds, the greatest diversity of organisms. Life wants to create the strongest possible web. In the jungle, life builds so many bonds on its web that (naturally-occurring) forest fires are quickly localized and quenched, earthquakes can’t shake down the trees that knit their roots together, and any attempt to pluck one species from the web is met with resistance from an army of organisms. The longer it goes without disaster, the more the web of life becomes like chainmail: nearly disaster-proof, an indestructible ecosystem. Life is constantly trying to achieve ecological perfection: infinite beings, infinite bonds, infinite niches.
Unfortunately, perfection is impossible. So nature has built in cataclysms to keep itself from achieving what is a physical impossibility. In the Permian Era, it used volcanoes. In the Cretaceous, it used an asteroid. And here in the Holocene, it’s using us. We are the agents the Earth is using to ensure it never fully becomes heaven. Life is writing the most elegant equation of all time on the blackboard of the world, but the equation cannot be completed. So nature has invented Harpo Marxian clowns that periodically come in like whirlwinds, erase parts of the equation with their shirtsleeves and run back out the door.
But then, there are phoenices, creatures that depend on disaster, who live in fire, who eat destruction. I believe that Life, although it appears to act like an energy or a substance, is actually a dimension — a non-physical dimension. That makes death a dimension, too. And beings exist in both, the way there are animals built for night and day. And if stability breeds diversity, and a place has regular disasters, you get animals that live within that regular, stable cycle of destruction while still evolving in remarkably complex ways.
The definition of a regular disaster is wildfire, which is generally seasonal. Beings that can survive fire eventually evolve to become fire-dependent. The sequoia, for example, not only can withstand forest fires, but actually requires them in order for their seeds to germinate — one of the longest-living organisms in the world is a slow-moving phoenix. Another slow-moving phoenix is a tortoise.
The Gopher Tortoise of Florida digs burrows that help it escape predators, oppressive heat, and the fires that often sweep the prairie. The tortoise is the main grazer in this ecosystem, so it needs the fire in order to burn off the invasive trees that would shade out its herbaceous food, and to encourage fresh, green growth in the fields. So you see how the Gopher Tortoise both survives and requires fire. But it also protects most of the other animals in its habitat: when these periodic fires strike, up to 150 other species dive into the tortoise’s burrows: rattlesnakes, birds, field mice. Things that, without the tortoise, could not hide themselves and would be burned alive. So the tortoise’s burrows act like a subterranean ark in a flood of fire, and ensure that every animal, not just the tortoise, emerges from the fire as a phoenix.
If there are species that require small disasters like forest fires to survive, and can carry other animals through, it stands to reason that there are species that can weather cataclysmic disasters and carry others through, the phoenices with long tails. I don’t know what they are, but they must be out there. Maybe we’re one. Maybe some of us are the fire, and others of us are the ark.