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.