Stop. For a moment of your hectic life bring your whole mind to the front edge of your nostrils. Feel the cool late autumn air split as it flows into your nose. Feel it tickle your larynx and follow its path down your trachea, splitting again through your bronchi, and filling your lungs as your diaphragm plunges, your chest expands. Now for the clever bit. Listen to the flow of vital oxygen through your millions of minute alveoli into the thread-like capillaries in which they are wrapped. Watch as each oxygen molecule is seized by haemoglobin and bound to red blood, to be borne away to your cells and used in respiration.
Oxygen. Its name translates idiomatically from Greek as ‘producer of acids’ since, at the time of its description in 1777, it was considered a key component of all acids. ‘Producer of life’ would be a more apt name. It is the sine qua non of almost all life on earth and — as we have found life nowhere else — of life herself. But back to those red blood cells. The oxygen they bear does not exist simply of itself: it has been made biologically available to you. The oxygen entering your
muscles from your blood was released, before it ever reached your nostrils, by a chemical reaction in the leaf of a plant. Again, stop. Consider that. The energy required to power your eyes and your brain, as you read this article, was released by the chemical reaction in your tissues known as respiration, fuelled in part by billions of molecules of oxygen. From plants.
I’ve barely begun. The glucose required in the same reaction also comes — essentially — from plants. And the chemistry which forges the glucose and frees the oxygen — making it bio-available to us — is powered by the greatest bunsen burner in our galaxy. Without the sun beating on the leaves of plants you could not be reading this.
There’s more. The plants which, energised by the sun, freed the oxygen coursing through your veins could only do so using water gathered by roots as fine and far-reaching as the capillaries embracing the alveoli in your lungs. The chemistry of these roots and of their relationships with billions of soil bacteria and fungi, their interactions with the roots of numberless other plants around them: these things are of a beauty and complexity which startle and amaze. More things in heaven and earth, Horatio.
Bring your mind back to your breath, slipping effortlessly into and out of your nostrils, unnoticed until you choose to notice. You are not the phone chiming in your pocket. You are not the spreadsheet flashing on your computer, digitally demanding your attention. You are not the numbers in your bank account, your fears over Brexit or Trump, nor the images
flickering on your flatscreen, tricking your eyes and your brain into believing a story which never happened. You are an animal: a story which has happened and is happening now, a link in an evolutionary chain reaching back to the start of life on earth and forward to who knows where. You bear a code almost four billion years old, handed from life to life since oxygen first made this puny planet habitable.
Brexit be damned. To the blood cells bearing oxygen round your body it is nothing. In the epic flow of life, from prokaryotic beginnings to primates capable of conjuring complex thought in their minds from strings of squiggles on pressed plant pulp, it matters nothing. You are an animal.
So be an animal. Rejoice in the wild around, from the merest molecule of oxygen to the whirling complexity of a starling flock coming to roost. Breathe in oxygen freed by plants and know that you are breathing. Digest food, from plants and animals, and own that your life comes from other lives, made in soil, air and water. Hear the autumn hoots and shrieks of owls and feel a brotherhood: in blood, air, water, genes and glucose. Listen to the fox yowl in the night and honour your kinship in chemistry. Belong to a food chain, knowing where your nutrients are made and aware of where they will go when, to return to Hamlet, you shuffle off this mortal coil. Love the soil and the air and the rain and the damp, dank smell of rotting birch leaves, their nutrients harvested by mycorrhizae, returned to roots, delivered to leaves and given to you. Feel the flow of air through your nostrils. Go home to nature.
Nick Acheson, NWT Wildlife Ambassador