Interconnectivity from the Soil to the Cosmos
published by Kris Taylor
The universe, the internet, our brains, and soils all have one thing in common: interconnectivity.
If we to take a closer look at the systems in our world, we’ll begin to see that things are interconnected. Pareidolia? Maybe… humans are just really good at finding patterns in things that may not be related, but hang with me for this thought exercise!
Our universe began eons ago with the big bang and, in the process, it created a web of galaxy clusters, star clouds, and dark matter. Scientists have been able to model this awe-inspiring expansion of the universe and the results are stunning. In the top left square of the photo below, you can see filament-like connections of dark matter (purple) that span between clusters of stars (yellow), creating a mesh of gravitational interactions that are believed to influence how galaxies behave.
The number of neural connections in our brains is immense, as in approximately 100 trillion connections immense. Each neuron can have up to 10,000 connections to other neurons, creating a vast mesh of cells, seen in the top right of the photo below. To put this into some sort of digestible comparison, if you stretched the connections from a human brain out in a line (don't try that at home) it would stretch around the world about four times.
The bottom left photo of the collage above shows a small fraction of the trillions of connections occurring between the billions of data points on the internet. Internet service providers act as hubs that connect users with data centers, which then connect the user with a server where a website, Instagram photo, or blog is hosted. The interconnectivity of these data points through the internet allows us to access massive amounts information at lightning fast speeds, unless at my apartment, then it feels like the Wi-Fi is from the days of dialup... I digress!
So, what’s the importance of pointing out all of these connections?
Yes, there's the simple fact that they look pretty when they're modeled out like this. On top of that, the visualizations allow you to easily see the patterns that emerge. The level of connectivity between nodes, whether that node is a cluster of stars, a neuron, or a server, in these systems is immense. This is important because, as a result, these systems are highly efficient at communicating and transmitting data and energy.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: I forgot to talk about one of the photos. Don’t worry, I saved the best for last!
This photo isn’t from a social network showing connection between friends or the connecting flights between various airports, it’s something a little deeper than that… literally. The lines in this photo show the underground fungal connections between various trees, which are the green circles. Imagine each one of those green circles as being someone’s telephone, and those lines are like little wires connecting one phone to another allowing them to communicate.
Scientists like Suzanne Simard of UBC have been studying these connections between plants and have found that plants can effectively communicate and share resources with each other through this fungal network.
This is some seriously cool stuff. This means that the old school model of me-versus-you cutthroat competition between plants isn’t so accurate anymore. Through these fungal connections, called mycorrhizae (my-kor-ry-zay), plants can send each other nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, they can send alerts of pest and disease pressures, they can reallocate water to areas that are drier, and they will even help seedlings of friendly species get a head start over invasive species. All of these communications happen as a result of current environmental conditions, kind of like you calling the fire department when there’s a fire or your brain telling your body to release adrenaline if you come face-to-face with a bear.
The older the tree in a forest network, the more connections that tree has to others in the ecosystem. Having mature hubs is important in the ecosystem’s ability to react to environmental pressures, also known as its resiliency. Resiliency in systems is what helps protect against drought, heat waves, cold snaps, fires, floods, insect population explosions, etc. Let’s just say that it’s a good thing when healthy ecosystems are resilient.
Okay, so let’s bring this back down to ground level. By implementing regenerative agricultural principles on a farm, such as reduced tillage, we can actually promote these connections in our farmlands. This means increased drought tolerance, decreased need for fertilizer, and decreased need for pesticides.
In the past, we sought connection by building massive networks of telegraph cables, railroads in pursuit of a new frontier, and the pony express to deliver mail. Today we build social networks, slack channels, and crisscrossing routes of jetliners taking us across the globe.
As we begin to understand and recognize how important these immense interconnected systems are in our lives, something in my gut tells me that we should recognize the importance of protecting and enhancing these newfound connections in the soil, as well.