The green leaves that make the world run

March 31, 2020

Photo: Michael Wing/PacificLight Images

 

When naturalist Neal Maine looks at a tree—or a single leaf, as in the photo above—he doesn’t just see the tree, or the shrub. He sees a gigantic solar panel. Check it out:

Photosynthesis, the encyclopedia reminds us, is the process by which green plants and certain other organisms transform light energy into chemical energy. It’s the basis of life on Earth. As the writer Loren Eiseley put it, “The human brain, so fragile, so perishable, so full of inexhaustible dreams and hungers, burns by the power of the leaf.”

To illustrate, Neal laid a bunch of salal leaves on a one-foot square of cardboard—like a solar panel. But these leaves are collecting photons from the sun on both sides, so the solar panel this illustrates is effectively way bigger than one square foot.

Then, to drive the point home, he took this shore pine bough and stripped off the needles (a conifer’s “leaves”).

Then he scattered those needles on a one-foot square of cardboard.

Those needles also have a front and a back, plus their surfaces are curved, so they’re collecting solar energy from every angle, all day. “It’s a 360-degree deal for that leaf; it’s not just one side,” Neal points out.

If you consider the proposed Rainforest Reserve from this perspective, it’s a gigantic solar panel vastly larger than the acreage of the reserve itself.

“When you cut down a tree,” Neal says, “you’re cutting down a solar panel that could cover basically a football field, because needles have both height and depth. They’re the things that produce the glucose that makes the world run.

“Think about it as a living organic energy machine,” Neal continues. “You don’t have to go up and kiss the leaf … but we should be kissing the leaves! Because that’s it! Bacteria in the ocean helps, but really it’s pretty much the green leaf business for us.”

The Rainforest Reserve will create more habitat for elk and other animals, Neal says, but elk can’t make energy the way a tree can. “It’s this organic structure: it gives them all a future, all the critters.”

All of us.

Photo of peaks in the proposed Rainforest Reserve: Justin Bailie

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