Peepal, pines, good air, puja and Homecoming

Halloween and other cultural rituals are highly valued in Arkansas.  Last night was Homecoming at the local high school.  We saw the queen’s court take off their heels and greet the football players as they ran onto the field.  We probably saw more fumbles than ever seen in high school football history.  We saw the Ricebirds pound the luckless River Rats.  That must not be the real name of the opponents, but the announcer had some accuracy issues.

Peepal treeFinally, falling asleep in the best seats in Ned Mosley stadium, we violated nearly all the rules of decorum for adults in the in-crowd and headed home before the band had even finished at half-time.  Early to bed, early to rise.  Now I’m up and at ’em and enjoying the fresh predawn air.  You have to get up early if you want to get the good air before it is all used up.

Good air is hard to come by in much of the world.  One objective of ecological resilience research is to predict from present characteristics which systems will survive and thrive in the future.  That’s one tall order.  But I think a good indicator is air quality.  As it goes down, the system is showing less and less ability to survive.  It’s poisoning itself.

We like to think of humans as more advanced, yet a few nuclear bombs or even fewer volcanoes and the fungi might take over as they did after the last mass extinction.  When no light penetrates the dust, smoke and debris-filled atmosphere and dead organisms are everywhere, the saprophytic species who like the dark will do especially well.

As you know, I don’t particularly like pine trees–except as lumber.  I don’t care how good they smell, they are just too dang selfish.  All those piles and piles of acidic, tannic pine needles carpet bombing wherever they live.  Killing almost anything which tries to live or be born close to them.  Creating an environment ideal for themselves and death for anyone else.  Just too much like a typical Chinese farm for my taste.

Have you ever been on a Chinese farm?  There is no wildlife at all.  All is tamed.  All is tainted by the touch of humans.  The sky is murky, the ground is all tilled, few birds fly by.  Yet the Chinese are abundant, just like pines.

In China, Nepal, and dry regions of other overpopulated Asian countries, sometimes the only tree you see if the Peepal tree, also called the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa).   It is supposedly the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.  Many revere this tree and advocate having one in your bedroom.

Most plants largely uptake carbon dioxide and release oxygen during the day (photosynthesis) and uptake oxygen and release CO2 during the night (respiration). Some plants such as Peepal tree can uptake CO2 during the night because of their ability to perform a type of photosynthesis called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM).  This type of photosynthesis is especially useful to plants growing in hot, dry conditions.  They can remain protected from the hot, desiccating daytime air and don’t open their stomata except at night.

However, CAM is an energy-inefficient reaction compared to the C3 and C4 photosynthetic routes.  Hence plants use CAM only during hot, dry conditions.

We have a different CAM plant in our greenhouse.  It is slightly less revered than the Peepal tree.  Mother-in-law’s tongue is a sharp-leafed plant that thrives with little water.  I mistakenly bought it for my wife for Valentine’s Day, mostly due to a vindictive salesgirl.  It grows from a huge bulb which has busted the pot it was planted in.  Now we just splash water on the top of it and it continues to grow and grow.  It’s to the ceiling now.  Monday we’ll move it to a two story greenhouse at Meadowcreek. Some advocate having a Mother-in-law’s tongue in your bedroom, saying it will do as good a job as the Peepal loved by the Asian devout.  I have my doubts.

The Peepal tree is a hemi-epiphyte in its native habitat. That means its seeds germinate and grow on other trees, but take no nutrients from them, only from the air, compost on its leaves. and rain.  When the host-tree dies, the Peepal seedling falls to the ground and roots in the soil.

Hindus worship the Peepal tree and perform a puja, showing reverence to its spirit through invocations, prayers, songs and rituals. Nobody knows where it came from, no known wild progenitors exist.  The origin of the Peepal tree can be traced back to the times of Indus Valley Civilization (about 3000 BC – 1700 BC).

In an ancient Hndu holy text, when the demons defeated the deities, Vishnu hid in the Peepal tree. Since this lord resided in the tree for some time, people began worshiping the tree, offering prayers to Lord Vishnu.  Other texts say Vishnu was born under the peepal tree. One story says the tree is home to the Hindu’s holy trinity of gods, the root being Brahma, the trunk is Vishnu and leaves represent Shiva. Another popular belief is that Krishna died under the Peepal tree.

The Upanishads (Hindu texts answering spiritual questions much like the Christian catechisms and Jewish Talmud ) use the Peepal tree to define the difference between the body and the soul. In one section, the body is the Peepal tree and the soul is the seed which leads to the tree.  In another, the soul is a bird who sits in the tree, eats the tree’s fruit and deposits seed from the fruit to grow into a new tree.  This is a tough one to incorporate in a sermon.  The soul eats the soul and defecates it so the soul can produce a new body.

Another Hindu text says a person who does not have a son should consider the peepal tree as his own child. It says that the family will prosper and have a good name, as long as the peepal tree survives. Cutting a peepal tree is regarded as a big sin, almost equivalent to murdering a Brahmin.  We just can’t murder one of the 1%, according to the 1%.

Some Hindus only touch the Peepal tree on Saturdays, but the Nepalese touch it all the time.  I remember the relief of finding a huge shady Peepal tree to lean against while on an otherwise treeless trek to a remote village agricultural project. When we got there the town was convulsed with a Maoist demonstration.  Later the area was taken over by communist rebels who finally did get rid of the decadent royal family of Nepal.

The Goddess Lakshmi (who is also an NPR newreader) dwells in the Peepul tree on Saturdays (but she’s on NPR every weekday). Women who are not blessed with a son tie a red thread around the trunk or on its branches asking the deities to bless her and fulfill her desire.

To our minds, maybe these rituals seem colorful, but a bit superstious and primitive.  Not at all like our Homecoming activities.

You might say we are so much more evolved.  They are a primitive race.  We are a more advanced species.

Ecological resilience research indicates that no system of living species is more evolved or primitive than another.  Some have conserved more features from their ancestors.  Others may adapt to change more rapidly.  But all are resilient, all have survived–at least till this point.

Pines are definitely resilient, just like sagebrush which poisons all the soil around it.  That doesn’t mean I like them.  Crows, you also realize, are among my favorite species.  Not because of their beautiful, lilting voices or their bright and colorful plumage.  But because they are so smart and adaptable.

Maybe we like crows because they are like us: smart and quick to adapt.  Maybe we change too quickly. Maybe we should stress a little more the conservative aspect of the conservative innovation quality of ecologically resilient systems.  Then maybe our air and water wouldn’t be so polluted and our extinction growing closer every day.


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