Skip to content

Plants and animals create their own balance in nature

Rock, paper, scissors...tree? Nature has fine but unusual balances, much like our societies. This tree and rock can be seen along the Bruce Trail near St. Davids.
Rock, paper, scissors...tree? Nature has fine but unusual balances, much like our societies. This tree and rock can be seen along the Bruce Trail near St. Davids. (Owen Bjorgan)

One of my favourite components of the spring hiking tour I run is explaining to people that nature has a pre-planned rulebook to follow every season.

The head of each species pushes up through the newly thawed ground in a textbook, predictable order every year. We know that trout lilies and wild leek will be first to burst on through to the other side. These two species are so determined to get that first taste of photosynthesis, that I have even seen them stick up through remaining snow patches. 

After these two early bloomers, the wild ginger, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and other herbaceous plants pop up in the same sequence they did last year and the thousands of years before that. 

Why wouldn’t every plant have evolved to pop up early and get the first sun? Wouldn’t it make sense to take full advantage of the first warm days, the first buzzing pollinators, and the leafless trees above?

Plants and animals don’t evolve by choice. Evolution is a background, perpetually forward-moving force that has a way of putting everything in its right place. 

We would like to think all plant life favours the warm and sunny seasons, so why do some plants still live north of the Arctic circle? How did they end up there? Although millions more of their distant cousins live down in the tropics, near the equator, these hardy northern plants are, again, in their right place. 

If every plant wanted to be first to the scene or live in photosynthesis heaven, it would be so competitive and chaotic that none of them would succeed. There would be too much stress on the ecosystem’s resources. Imagine planning a party for four, and 40 show up? Imagine a nation or planet whose natural resources are being irresponsibly diminished too fast because too many hands are in the pot at once?

Just picture a bunch of energized school kids trying to rush out the classroom door to their goal: recess or gym class. Some kids try to “butt” aggressively to the front of the line, and bodies get squished and bumped around while funnelling through the door. A little messy and uncoordinated. Instead, if the kids got into line and were told they would all eventually be getting to the same place, it would be a smooth and more graceful transition.

The kids all got where they wanted to be nicely, and just about every plant species has made its successful run by the time midsummer arrives.

Plants all over the world also have a funny triangle relationship with humans. Sometimes you can find a plant that can harm you, and another species within arm’s reach that could cure the same harm. An example is poison ivy that can often be found growing right beside spotted Touch-me-not, which has aspects of the plant that when crushed can ease the itch of the ivy rash. Similar to our social circumstances growing older as humans, we are constantly in scenarios where we are in the same room or same town as connections that can serve us, or they don’t, so it certainly helps to have knowledge of your surroundings.

Look at the diet and the mouths of some of the creatures on this planet. On a small scale, consider the snapping turtle and its formidable razor jaws and a big mouth. What is stopping a large pond animal from devouring every fleshy frog, tasty fish, and little duckling? Of course an animal gets full and can’t eat all of the time, but for a creature that has such gluttonous capabilities and generally doesn’t get bullied, it knows its place in the ecosystem and ensures that the balance is kept in check for its pond empire. Otherwise, the empire won’t be able to successfully function. 

Aptly nicknamed ‘glutton,’ is perhaps Canada’s ultimate northern predator, the wolverine. It infamously lives in a carnivore’s dreamland. It is a powerful predator with very little fear for animals larger than itself. It will not only hunt, but will gladly take any free bodily food scraps left wasting away in the harsh environment. Like the pine trees, beetles and polar bears, even the wolverine doesn’t take more than it needs from its balanced world.

The forest also responds to environmental cues, and then prepares and respects itself accordingly. How, you might ask? A forest ecosystem wants to keep itself healthy, so neighbouring habitats can also stay healthy. The benefit is that adjacent natural realms blend into each other, as there are no perfect boundaries in ecosystems. The support network simply grows.

To accomplish this health, like our daily musings, forests practise hygiene and clean up after themselves. We do this in our own homes with laundry, we brush our teeth and try to not leave rotting food around. Do you find yourself feeling more productive in a cleaner workspace? Fungus slowly but very surely breaks down the logs and leaves of the forest floor, so it doesn’t sit there looking like a boneyard of wood. Good news is that, while it cleans up, it takes the nutrients of the debris and redistributes it to neighbouring trees, and even ecosystems beyond. 

I suppose the takeaway is that our society is like an ecosystem with its economies, personalities, structures and events. It only makes sense to take care of our individual selves at the base level, be somewhat orderly during the chaos, and together we can pull through to operate our best society. Not so ironically, it all comes back to our relationship with nature.