Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The beans on Wall Street

OK, I'll clam up about the quahogs for now, though I might not resist a report on the Great October Clam Hunt coming up in a few days.


We are spending time in biology talking about biogeochemical cycles and energy transfer.

Carbon is cycled. So is water. Nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium. We use stuff over and over, yet we depend on other organisms to get it.

We rely on plants to recapture carbon dioxide and merge it with electrons and protons from water. We rely on bacteria to capture nitrogen from the air, to break it back down when organisms decompose.

Energy, however, cannot be recycled. We are creatures of the sun.


Each year, plants make enough stuff to keep more than a few billion primates alive. Each year we come closer to learning about limits. While folks panic over a volatile stock market, the local trees are breaking down chlorophyll, preparing for winter. Organic molecules are moved back into the roots, their energy, stored sunlight, held over until February when the sap starts to run again.

I walk to school. By mid-October, I am mostly walking in the dark.

For the last 3 years, I passed a maple that held onto its leaves on a few branches, long after the other leaves had fallen. The leaves bunched around a street lamp. Most of the tree lay dormant, yet a few hundred leaves stayed green, capturing light, making sugars.

This week darkness returned to my morning walk, and I remembered my tree a quarter mile before I got to it. As I ambled to school, I decided I'd take a picture a day, to show students in minutes what I'd seen over months. I could structure a good lesson around my persistent tree.

The tree was gone—sawdust surrounded its hollowed stump, likely cut down within the past week. Judging by the stump, it needed to come down. Still hurt to see it gone.


On Friday, my biology classes will plant seeds bought in the local grocery store, seeds still in their packages sold as food. I'll call it a lab. I'll toss in a few critical thinking questions, we will discuss cycles, but the real objective is to get the kids to see something grow over time in front of their eyes.

If we get lucky, if the light is just right, if the plant survives the winter break, and if pollen gets fortuitously dislodged, we may have grow a new bean pod by February.

Carbon dioxide from teachers cajoling students to try a little harder, from kids telling secrets to each other, from sighs, from laughter, will join particles ripped off the water molecules poured on the plants by the students.

And when the students start to pick up on the fears of the generation that mortgaged their futures, as another cycle of greed ends, maybe they will find solace when their bean plants flower in January.

"New Economics" still relies on the old economics--everything we need comes from the soil and the sun. There are limits.

A bean plant never loses its value, no matter what the market's doing. And by late winter, even Wall Street might not amount to more than a hill of beans.

Both photos from the National Archives--the bean picture was taken around 1938. If the boys are still alive, I'd love to hear their story.

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