Science to Live By: Foxfire

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© J. Dirk Nies, Ph.D.

Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

– Zen Buddhist Proverb

Two months ago, the first week of November afforded days warmed by bright sunshine and graced with balmy breezes. They were a splendid time to work out-of doors with our good friends—Jim, Debbie and Scott Watson—who amiably came to our farm in Blackwells Hollow (with Phil and Sally James’s log splitter in tow) to help us haul, cut, split and stack two cords of wood over the course of two days.

A magnificent green ash of 100-inch girth was the principal focus of our efforts. A formerly robust tree, it had weathered a century of storms. In recent years, however, the insidious emerald ash borer (EAB) had weakened it.

The emerald ash borer—Agrilus planipennis—is an exotic, invasive, wood-boring, green jewel beetle native to eastern Asia. When uncontrolled by natural predators, its larvae feed under the bark of ash trees, cutting off the transport of nutrients, resulting in tree death within several years.

The beetle first immigrated to the U.S. and Canada through the port of Detroit around the turn of the century in wood packing material or other wood products. By 2008, it had worked its way south and east into Virginia’s woodlands.

Foresters estimate that over the past decade it has killed more than 30 million ash trees, causing significant economic damage and raising concern for the very survival of several ash species in North America. The beetle has been placed on the alert list of the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO; see www.pestalert.org).  To help contain the spread of the emerald ash borer, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recently imposed restrictions on the movement of ash trees, logs and firewood from infested to uninfested areas (for more information, call (866) 322-4512).

On a blustery March day, with rain and sleet driven diagonally by a harsh north wind, our formerly stalwart ash tree blew down from where it had stood proudly at the wood’s edge. Mortally wounded, the massive tree splayed across our pasture fence. Not only did it level our fence, its enormous crown flattened our lean-to shelter, killing our donkey Pico, who had sought a haven there from the storm.

Hitching a metal chain to my small tractor, one by one, Scott looped the chain around previously cut 10-foot sections of tree and I dragged each one to an open field.  Scott then put his shiny new chainsaw to heavy work, transforming these hefty sections into firewood length for splitting—saving one particularly fine piece to make a bench in Pico’s memory. In addition to the ash, smaller logs of black locust, black cherry and some red oak covered with mushrooms also were hauled, cut and split.

Sharing a hearty meal together brought a sense of deep satisfaction. With the wood split and stacked in five neat rows four feet high, my wife Carmen and I were very thankful knowing this wood was poised to be reborn as fire; offering heat and light for our farm home this winter. Ralph Waldo Emerson words came to mind. “Nothing in nature is exhausted in its first use. When a thing has served an end to the uttermost, it is wholly new for an ulterior service. In God, every end is converted into new means.”

That evening of the second day, with our work done, Carmen and I fell asleep utterly and wonderfully exhausted. After midnight, I awoke from deep slumber. Stars were shining brightly through the window and the early morning air still held the previous day’s warmth. Arousing Carmen, I invited her to step outside with me to look at the autumn constellations of the Milky Way.  The waning moon appeared as a thin crescent, allowing our eyes to behold the night sky in its full glory: the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia’s zigzag of five bright stars, Andromeda and adjacent Pegasus in the southern sky.

And as so often happens in my life when sharing impromptu moments like this with Carmen, she showed me something I otherwise would have missed. The ground around our feet was faintly aglow with chards of splintered light. We were standing in foxfire!

Wood chips—not all, only those of red oak—were emitting a cool, pale, yellowish-green light.  White-rot fungal mycelia, growing deep within the moist oak logs and now exposed to oxygen in the temperate night air, responded by emitting a magical will o’ the wisp light.  Cupping a moist, glowing woodchip in the palm of my hand, I imagined I held a bit of glistening stardust that had fallen from above.

Wondering what the split logs themselves might look like, I threw off the large tarp covering the woodpile. The wood was lit from within! Fairy fire was sprinkled amongst and between the logs of ash, locust and cherry. Every oak log was eerily alight with bioluminescence. Carmen and I reminisced about another delightful night, recalling a sultry walk along the beach in Delaware with our children. With every step we took at the water’s edge, the wet sand under our feet suddenly sparkled with bioluminescent light. I conjectured it was microscopic, marine dinoflagellates signaled to us “watch it, you’re stepping on me!”

Bioluminescence occurs principally in the oceans. On land, we most frequently see this phenomenon in the blinking light of fireflies. It is rarely observed in mushrooms. Of the 100,000 species of fungi that have been identified and cataloged around the world, fewer than 100 are bioluminescent. What Carmen and I experienced, especially during the month of November, was a very singular treat. By the next day and the days following, the light-emitting oak woodchips and logs had become mundane. Like a bashful child, they would not be coaxed against their natural proclivity to perform an encore performance of their magical light show.

Science, however, now gives us the power to genetically bioengineer plants to glow continuously.  A team of bio-engineers in San Francisco has launched a project to insert into plants manmade copies of genes obtained from fireflies or bioluminescent bacteria. For starters, they have genetically modified Arabidopsis plants to radiate cold light, and they’re working on engineering roses to glow in the dark. To help fund their work, a contribution of $150 or more will get you “a fully grown glowing plant to brighten up your home or office.” Some urban planners already are envisioning city streets illuminated with genetically engineered, bioluminescent trees.

I am uncomfortable with this application of biomimicry. I am concerned that these foreign, bioluminescent genes may inadvertently escape from their host plant and propagate into the natural landscape with deleterious consequences. I want the natural level of bioluminescence to remain as it is (imagine seeing the Shenandoah Mountains glowing at night). We should instead focus research and development on chemiluminescence.  By following Nature’s chemistry, we could make these energy efficient, light-emitting chemicals safely from bio-renewable materials.

At this year draws to a close and the nights are long, we ward off the darkness by illuminating the season with lights: firelight, candlelight, luminarias, and the festively colored electric lights of the holiday (and maybe someday, bioluminescent poinsettias). I am gladdened by light. These lights evoke in me a sense of warmth, celebration, nostalgia, hope. They recall to mind friendships and the acts of kindness that have brightened my life.

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