On a Thorn

Black Thorn Tress

Below is an extract from my diary, which I decided to also read for you.

It is just before midday. The grass here is patchy and the sun has baked the grey sand to a burn. The veld has become like an oven. The time has come to seek some shade to cool down and have a drink.
The only shade is from a few black thorn shrub-trees. At midday their shade is drawn in close and I have to crawl carefully through a tangle of thorny saplings to get to decent cover.
I have wiggled myself into a reasonably comfortable position with my back against the trunk. As I chew on my apple, I stare at some thorny twigs a few inches from my face. They are awkwardly close, but I am hesitant to try and break them away. Black thorns have especially vicious hooks.

They are, to me, a marvel of evolution in their own right. The tree has lovingly finished each into a tiny work of art. It is dark brown, with an enamel-like sheen. Over its three to four millimetres of length, it tapers in an elegant recurve from a firm base to a syringe-sharp tip. Each has a companion and they two-step around the stem to deftly face their deadly claws in every possible direction.
They are remarkably hard – unbreakable without an iron tool. They will rip through skin and flesh without breaking off. If one is pricked, the instinctive jerk away causes the pair to claw in to full depth and the whip of the sapling to have more pairs, even from nearby saplings, to strike. The more one moves, the more hooks. The inexperienced can get ensnared in a painful tangle that will leave them bloodied and with torn clothes.

They are a carefully designed and amazingly effective protection system against the browsers, who love the succulent oval leaves. They are efficient too – they need to be, because creating and perfecting them uses a lot of the tree’s resources, in a world where nutrition is scarce. So, where there are no leaves, there are no thorns; if the biome does not host giraffe, the saplings higher up have fewer thorns. The leaves are carried fairly close to the stem, which make them difficult to pluck without getting badly stung – yet the pods, when grown, are exposed so that browsers can easily reach them, for the sake of seed distribution.

It is hard for me to knit together an explanation for the perfection of this tree system in logic tight enough to fully satisfy my engineering mind. The best I can do is to postulate some possibilities, but I quickly get to the point where I need to fall back on the standard evolutionary cushion – “over many millions of years.”

I rest my head back against the trunk and gaze out through my tangle of saplings at the African savannah bushland around me. It is, for the most part, a harsh environment. It is prone to droughts, often for extended periods, it endures extreme daytime summer temperature and winter nights commonly below zero, and surface water is scarce at best; completely absent over some huge swaths.
Yet it is astonishingly rich in life, from the most primitive to the most advanced. The life forms that thrive here have been selected and evolved over many aeons by interaction with each other and with their climatic and geological environment. Each species is unique, and has existed over periods that, although scientists may be able to put some number to their age, is beyond our practical comprehension
I often marvel at the perfection of their fit to their specific niche in the biome. None are too small or big, not too strong or weak, each is the best shape, has just the right level of protection, is just the right shade of colour, has the right attributes… None does anything unnecessarily. Everything is fit for purpose. No energy is wasted. Each element, if left to Nature, maintains itself in perfect equilibrium with the rest.

It fills my whole being with awe and reverence. Here, I am like a wisp of odd-coloured spider silk, blown about by the winds of a system immensely vast, timeless, and functioning only to its own rules. It has no awareness of me. It simply rolls on without any concern for whether I get crushed or find a tiny niche of survival. It is also true of the whole human race. Nature may take a direction that will exterminate us, and despite all our (in our eyes) astonishing achievements as a species, we will not be able to stop it – in fact, even the faintest trace of us ever having been here may be obliterated.

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