Posts Tagged ‘Roots’
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Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part3)

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I am still wrapping my mind around the fact that one of the most diverse and dynamic systems of life, with thousands of species of plants, animals, insects and fungi rises from an average of 8cm (3”) of soil in the Chocó region.

Exposed roots after a landslide

Exposed roots after a landslide

     The jungle floor is a carpet of roots, rotting leaves, fallen branches, vines, lianas, dormant seeds and nuts as well as sprouting plants. Under this skin of life lay layers of loose rock, clay and sand. Unlike the temperate forests of the northern hemisphere where nutrients, from decomposing matter, soak into the top and subsoil for gradual recovery by the root systems, in the jungle the cycle is a lot more dynamic.  Humidity, high levels of rainfall and a steady, year round sun cycle ensure that life thrives and with it death and decomposition.  The roots of almost all the plants and epiphytes have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus (mycorrhiza) which lives in them. The fungus helps the plants decompose bio matter and recover most of the nutrients almost entirely by themselves. With the amount of rain fall and mostly clay under the thin layer of slanted soil, most nutrients would be washed into the river system if it wasn’t for the carpet of roots which like a sponge suck them up perpetuating the cycle of growth-death-decay-rebirth.

     The diversity and sheer number of species feels like a crowded TTC* streetcar, if everyone was OK with multiple people sitting on top of one another during rush-hour. The dense forest makes it work. Each plant, animal and insect species has a place or rather a niche of their own. A great example of this is the variety of species of humming birds found in the area. There are over 40 species in the Chocó region alone, over 100 in Ecuador. Each species varies in size, beak shape/length, plumage, etc. and has a unique ability to access a food source while sharing others.  It is this kind of complex balancing act which permeates through the ecosystem.

Violet-tailed sylph, photograph by Jonathan Janse

Violet-tailed sylph, photograph by Jonathan Janse

     I arrived at the same time Jonathan Jansen did, a self-described “crazy” birder.  He is there to conduct research into the possible connection between telling a birds age by the quality of its plumage. The research entails catching as many birds as possible so that he could examine them and gather observations, amassing data in order to examine patterns. This gave me the opportunity to see many different species up close. Their size always seemed heavier than it actually was while their heartbeat was ferocious and eyes clear and sharp just like their beaks. The colours found on the feathers, the gradations form one tone to another are amazing. There is one particular bird, the Green Crowned Brilliant, that I can still see when I close my eyes. It was one of the first I got to see up close to admire its green plumage. Looking at the area above the beak the rich olive green shifted to a bright gold as though a beam of light pierced the dense foliage of the jungle. I have never seen something quite like it in nature, the way the feathers shifted from olive green to gold was mesmerizing and truly beautiful.  So beautiful that supposedly the Maya used to make robes out of the feathers of humming birds for their kings.

     As part of the decay, falling debris is a constant. If you raked a trail in a few days it looked as though no one did so for a while. Leaves fall restlessly during the rainy season and I was told by Nicole, co-founder of the biological reserve, that it’s even more intense during the dry season since everything sheds in order to maximize moisture storage.

     Another amazing adaptation to changing conditions is the ability of a palm to move from one location to another with more favorable lighting. Appropriately named the “walking palm”, it can move up to 20cm in a year by growing roots which cascade down covered in sharp spikes. It reminded me of a rocket taking off, its main trunk jutting off in to the sky supported by a plume of roots. Having established a direction it cuts off its connection to the roots facing away from the light growing them towards the location it will better thrive in. The establishment of new roots severs the ones behind as it moves forward towards the light.

A gap in the jungle foliage created by a fallen tree.

A gap in the jungle foliage created by a fallen tree.

     In contrast the large mahogany and golden mahogany trees that grow in the area create thick, gothic buttress like roots to support their stature. Given the terrain, steep valleys of loose gravel layer covered by different types of clay, it’s amazing the height and size a lot of the trees reach. When these giants do fall, they open large swatches of the jungle to secondary succession so that the forest is in a constant state of tearing itself down and rebuilding, allowing for new species to dominate.

     Often the fall of these giants can be attributed to lianas and their more sinister cousins the strangle figs. The strangler figs germinate in the canopy sending down thin, hair like wisps towards the ground. Once on the ground the wisps take root and begin to grow sprouting leaves that will eventually outperform those of the tree while gaining in thickness and weight. The roots coil themselves around the tree eventually totally encasing it. The tree dies as the strangler fig coil fuses itself around its dead, rotting carcass eventually leaving a hallow space where the tree use to be.

     The ancient forest is constantly reborn. A complete system in a constant rebalancing act, adding and subtracting, changing. I realized I was surrounded by the embodiment of becoming, a key idea in the work I have been developing so far in Toronto.  It was obvious that my original tentative framework for the project “The Shape of Loss” represented only a section of a cycle. The roads facilitated the change of the land into farms but it did not end there and the project I am a part off is an example of that. Even without human intervention the landscape constantly reshapes itself so change was the common denominator in what I was observing.  My time here was beginning to gel all that I was seeing and experiencing. I was working on a few watercolours in different locations while continuing my daily walks. Soon it would pay off big time.

*(Toronto Transit System)