ESSAYS, ARTICLES, REVIEWS AND DISCUSSION GROUPS
Weaving a World with Light: Photosynthesis and Our Daily Bread
by Carolyn Webb
Magazine #50, Spring 2004
In the dawn of the earliest mornings in the life
of our planet there arose an idea born at the level of
atoms and molecules and single cells, which today
we call photosynthesis. It was not an idea in the way we have ideas. It was an action—a sequence of actions, of shifting electrical charges being felt in molecule after molecule—first in one direction, then in another, as the energy from the Sun was integrated into the tiny ‘body’ of a single cell bacterium. The charges moved this way and that, through and across the primordial first architecture of life: the cell membrane.
The action was rapid and purposeful. At the close of the action there were some new molecules lying trembling with sensitivity inside the membrane, capable of ‘feeding’ the fragile life structure that had expression as a single cell. The body of the cell was given the means by which to go on—to move, to grow, to reproduce—through the energy that now was available to it in the form of these self-synthesized molecules. Their presence had been wrought through a secret weaver whose power was in its knowledge of interaction with the flooding shower of light rays falling upon the young hot planet we call Earth. The time was at least 3.8 billion years ago and life had only just begun.
This article is in praise of this process which has carried on unceasingly ever since. Photosynthesis has changed and developed, becoming more efficient at producing ‘solid’ energy with the aid of radiant solar energy. But the essential idea has remained the same for nearly 4 billion years. Today all complex organisms depend on this skill for their very life. The descendants of one particularly talented bacterium, living around 2.7 billion years ago, live on in the salad and vegetables you may eat today. The chicken or fish or cow whose flesh we may eat today also owes its life to those same descendants, which exist in great quantity in all plant cells, known to biologists as chloroplasts. Virtually all of life, and certainly all complex life forms depend for their food, ultimately, on this original transaction and relationship between Earth’s agents of photosynthesis and the Sun.
Evolution Of Planet And Life
While this process is the means by which our food is generated, and so is very much a phenomenon of nature today, it is hard to draw a line between today and the deep past because it is this very phenomenon that is responsible—in part—for our existence as human beings at all. Our warm blood, our breathing, the multicellular fabric of our body and mind (a trillion cells working together)—all have been brought forth from nature by the direct and indirect effects of photosynthesis. But it goes much further than that. The land on which our food grows and the water that comes down as rain that has evaporated out of the oceans—these too have been, in part, created or sustained by this process. So intimate is the mutuality between life and the planet’s physical features that we are looking at a single, very densely integrated system. Life and Earth have an entwined history, so much so, that it is not possible to separate out one from the other in any meaningful way. This history has been fueled by the continuous arrival of photons of light from the Sun. Thus, learning about and reflecting on the power of photosynthesis, we find ourselves drawn inexorably out to the cosmos in which our lives are lived. There is more to that mouthful of bread than meets the eye!
Photosynthesis has enabled life to occur and to become complex. Its chemical effects have altered both the rocks and the atmosphere. Today, industrialized society digs up the transformed remains of ancient life and we drive around in our cars, turn on our computers and much more, as a result of this infusion of life’s products into the body of Earth over millennia. But the most striking effect has been on the delicate molecular-based process of evolution by the release of a fiery, dynamic element into the atmosphere—oxygen. The endlessly shifting molecules of DNA, with their control over all other molecules of the body, have been especially sensitive to environmental changes in the quantity of oxygen. With that sensitivity has come much change.
Life extended its powers with the aid of oxygen and gained a vitality and strength through which it has covered all parts of the planet. At each stage of the evolution of life, oxygen levels (and the formation of an ozone layer from that oxygen) have played an absolutely critical role. From eukaryotes to the first animals and plants, to land-living beings breathing in the atmosphere through lungs, to the warm-blooded, even more energetic and more emotionally expressive mammals, oxygen is deeply implicated as a potent factor of change and empowerment. Thus, the spiraling process of evolution is all wrapped up with this primordial relationship of photosynthesizing organisms and the Sun. But how does the magic of photosynthesis actually work? How does it produce life?
The Way Of Photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is an incredibly complex process. How the single-celled organism or the chloroplast manages to split water, for instance, is still not fully understood. In essence, however, what it involves is the controlled and coordinated use of incoming energy from the Sun to "fire" the capacity of the organism to synthesize—in a sequence—two main kinds of molecules. The first of these molecules supplies the power to forge the second. It is the ubiquitous energy-carrying molecule that we, like all animals, can also make but only as a result of eating— Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP. With the freshly-minted power of ATP the organism can then make its carbohydrates, which are longer-lasting energy molecules needed for life’s processes. It pulls in carbon dioxide from the environment, dismantles it, and then weaves its carbon together with hydrogen and oxygen in a very complex circular process involving an enzyme to speed reactions along. The totality of chemical reactions produce more oxygen than is needed and the surplus floats out into the environment. Photosynthesis thus fulfils its ultimate goal of integrating precious carbon into the organism, for life can only happen with this particular element being available. Its propensity to form bonds with other elements, as well as itself, makes it essential for the self-organization of the body to occur at all. It is the glue from which a body can be made. Thus, photosynthesis is the first stage in the wider process of embodiment.
Embodying the Universe
Life happens, it would seem, somewhat like a "standing wave," as energy ceaselessly flows through the dynamic structure of the body. We take in our energy today on the "strength" first constructed by the flow of energy into the photosynthesizing being. Embodiment, therefore, ultimately has to be seen as a process that belongs to the universe itself. It is larger than the cell or the plant or the animal or the Earth alone. It is enabled by the presence of the Sun with its small swarm of planets, one of which is situated at just the right distance for water to remain liquid. And the Sun is one of the great community of stars that is the Milky Way galaxy. In exploring the power of photosynthesis in our lives, therefore, we not only understand more clearly where our daily bread comes from, but are brought into the cosmological dimension of our existence as well. Embodiment on Earth is an activity of the cosmos. It all arises out of the relationship of the body of Earth held in gravitational orbit around the body of the Sun and an interaction of the mutual powers that these two bodies possess.
On Earth, the powers are held in the form of rock and minerals and water and gases flowing between and over these. Earth is molecules—atoms in combination and interaction. With the Sun, it is the gift of radiant energy, flowing unceasingly from its finely-balanced deep core where hydrogen atoms fuse to become helium atoms, with a little loss of mass in the process. The helium formed is not quite the sum of the original hydrogen which fuses. A tiny portion of the mass involved is converted into its primordial freedom—radiant free energy—and after zigzagging for thousands of years through the dense gaseous body of the Sun, it is finally free to roam across the universe.
In only eight minutes a small fraction of the total quantity of sunlight being emitted by the Sun reaches little Earth. Here it is met by something that is the miraculous child of both great bodies and the powers of the cosmos, something whose origin and source is beyond our sciences to fully describe. In the meeting of sunlight and the precisely attuned molecules derived from Earth we catch a glimpse of a deeper power still, charged with intelligence and desire for life flowing through the tiny being that is capable of photosynthesis. This being can interact intelligently with solar energy. It knows what to do and how to use the free energy. Its knowledge is directed towards embodiment. This is the "idea" that photosynthesis expresses with such extraordinary eloquence.
The idea is in its actions which are quintessentially sensitive, born of the electrical nature of all matter through the dynamism of positive and negative "charge." The chloroplast or single cell can feel what it is doing. Its chlorophyll molecules are sensitive to just two particular wavelengths of light and none other, not even the ‘green’ wavelength. From this sensitivity a green world has evolved. Chlorophyll achieves an exact resonance with the incoming light photons from the Sun. It does so with its atomic power of excitement that is part of the greater unity of matter and energy governing the entire universe. At this moment of solar penetration and earthly reception, we may see the excitement of life emerging into existence. Who knows but that it might also be a moment of ecstasy? Here is the portal through which slips the encompassing creativity of the universe itself, continuously forging the means by which the body can exist. Something wants to grow in this universe.
Here, on these fragile membranes, coordinated with a mastery that we cannot begin to emulate, we find a threshold of supreme significance and beauty. This is the doorway of Life! We see a sign of the immanent power that is both the source, and the expression of, all that lives. Over this threshold of membrane and its chlorophyll pigments and the multitude of other electrically-sensitive molecules, pours an immense and still unfolding creativity into embodiment. The synthesis that is accomplished has become so much greater than the synthesis of molecules. It is the synthesis, day by day, for umpteen trillions of days, of a completely alive space in the great dynamic universe.
Origins and Genius
We stand today discovering our origins at multiple points in the evolution of the universe—from its very first seconds of existence, through the grand galaxies of stars, to those especially huge stars that explode, with their payload of 92 chemical elements from which solar systems can be made. We discover our origin yet again in the next great moment of transformation that is photosynthesis, for this is the fuse from which nearly every living form draws its light. Our being, our life, begins with this moment. This is you, and this is me! Tangible. Unique. Present. Embodied. Happening! We stand before a great mystery, which is the self-organizing, self-synthesizing, and infinitely creative cosmos. This is sacred ground surely. In this phenomenon we are witnessing something that shows the sign of a Self that extends through all that exists, a Self that has sought a body through which to live. We are in the realm of the sacred with every mouthful we take and every measurement we make. Through us flows a dark light.
In our own experience, therefore, especially that most mundane yet pleasurable of activities—our eating—we are in touch with the deep creativity that is capable of organizing an entire universe. The secret weaver at work in photosynthesis and our individual self are not remote from one another. We are more intimate than we ever knew. In fact we are only partly distinct from one another, individuated only up to a certain point. The seamless Whole cannot be completely severed into parts. This is what we find when we come up close to photosynthesis and explore its role in the evolution of our planet and ourselves. For in us, whatever made the cosmos, whatever made the Sun and the Earth, can now look back upon its journey through our eyes: our sensitive, searching, and vulnerable human eyes. We find that the journey is integral and seamless and that the story, finally, has created the storyteller—the human being.
In reflecting upon that story, we find that we are an expression of the story itself. Rooted in a time and a space vastly greater than our own short lives, we are an embodiment of the Earth and its endlessly fertile relationship with the generous Sun. Our bodies express all the history of life on this planet. And that history is also the history of every mountain, every river, every ocean, every pond and every millimeter of rock and soil, every wisp of water vapor and every breath of the atmosphere blowing ceaselessly around our globe. In our bodies flows the knowledge of an entire planet, an entire solar system, and the universe. It is nothing short of spectacular! What cause for celebration!
In photosynthesis we witness the spark of genius. As we face the immense challenges of evolution in our own time, we may draw some inspiration and encouragement from that great genius. It is the genius of transformation. We can transform our world towards sustaining and creating more beauty, not less. We can become the human equivalent of chlorophyll, the pigment that can speak with the Sun in the deepest of understanding. We can be ignited by the great story of the universe into creating a whole new era of life on Earth. It is not beyond our powers. It has been done before, over and over and over again.
Caroline Webb is a graduate of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness department at California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco. She is now working through teaching, writing, and filmmaking to extend the ideas
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