One of the lectures I give in my science fiction writing course and conference workshops is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. My upcoming writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character” addresses this subject with examples from a wide range of published fiction. The book will be released sometime in 2019 by Pixl Press.
In my lecture (and book) I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction. Students perk up when I bring up some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.
Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies
For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring for its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.
This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.
When I bring in extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas. I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.
All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own. Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.
UBC researcher Suzanne Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest.
This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root). These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.
Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.
Fatal Attractions & Natural Bullies
The “ordinary” Bracken fern thrives in a wide range of conditions on virtually every continent (except Antarctica). That’s because it plays the “long game” by having several strategies to outlive and outcompete its surrounding nemeses.
Strategies include a loose lifestyle such as several ways to reproduce and grow to accommodate seasons, drought and burning; a shady arrangement with the local thugs (aggressive ants) who protect it for its tasty nectar; use
of cyanide and ecdysones by its young shoots; and tough carcinogenic fronds that contain glass-like silicates.
Despite its many uses (e.g., used for potash fertilizer, heating fuel, roofing, bedding for animals), the Bracken fern is considered a pest. In truth, it is a versatile adapter to changing environments. And that is what our climate changing world is fast becoming.
I highly recommend the works of Annie Dillard and Loren Eiseley for wonderful and bizarre examples of natural wonders that resonate with metaphor. I also recommend my upcoming book “Ecology of Story” (Pixl Press), which will showcase a diverse set of examples from the literature of metaphoric environment and creatures.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.