The Ironwood And The Cactus

Fortunately, the opportunity to actually engage patterns in Nature comes to me often.  As time passes, I will be sharing some of these experiences and my thoughts about these experiences with you.

One of my very favorite places to camp is Ironwood Forest National Monument (I just call it “Ironwood”) west of Tucson, Arizona. This public land is managed by BLM.  BLM describes the tract as  “Taking its name from one of the longest living trees in the Arizona desert, the 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument is a true Sonoran Desert showcase. Keeping company with the Ironwood trees are Mesquite, Palo Verde, Creosote, and Saguaro, blanketing the monument floor beneath rugged mountain ranges named Silver Bell, Waterman and Sawtooth. In between, desert valleys lay quietly to complete the setting.”

Ironwood ForestI like this place for three reasons. First, there is a pristine feeling because few people go there. There are no public facilities and, given some ecological common sense, you can camp anywhere.  It is wonderfully quiet. Except for occasional aircraft noise, you can hear Nature without the noise of humanity. Second, Ironwood has magnificent early morning light that changes color as the sun rises. The changing light casts a magnificent golden glow on the plants and the nearby mountain. As an avid nature photographer, I’m thrilled.

But, my third reason for loving this place is the most important. Ironwood is home to some very interesting patterns in Nature. The most obvious is the crazily shaped arms of the Saguaro cactus. But my favorite is the Ironwood trees, along with the Palo Verde and Mesquite, and how they act as nursery plants to protect the Saguaro.  This demonstration of a temporal symbiotic pattern in Nature fascinates  me particularly because it involves preferential attachment — a key factor in the reason why patterns in Nature are what they are.

Let’s start first by talking about nursery plants. Seedlings from certain species germinate only in certain selected spots. One criteria for the Saguaro Cactus seed to germinate is protection from the harsh desert sun. Wind and stream water move the Saguaro seeds until some are caught up at the base of the Ironwood, Palo Verde, and Mesquite plants. The leafy branches offer the needed protection and the seed germinates to become a seedling. And there the cactus sits for its entire long life that averages 200 years.

All over Ironwood you can see this nursery plant arrangement with a large cactus poking its body up through the top of a Palo Verde or Ironwood tree or a Mesquite bush. Likewise, many young cacti are dwarfed by their nursery plant. But, I also see many Saguaro cacti without nursery plants.  The Palo Verde has an estimated lifespan of 100 years. The Mesquite has a lifespan of 40-110 years. The Saguaro outlives both of these nursery plants. That is why one sees many solo Saguaro. Their nursery plants have died a long time ago. But, the Ironwood Tree lives 300 to 600 years — outlasting the Saguaro. That is why there are many large Saguaros living within the branches of the Ironwood Tree. And that is why I see dead Saguaros embraced by the Ironwood.

So, what about “preferential attachment”?  Patterns in Nature are what they are because they are interconnected to other patterns in Nature. Preferential attachment describes the way that patterns in Nature connect. It describes the character of the connection network in which a pattern exists. In fact, along with growth, preferential attachment appears to be an essential process in the formation of patterns in Nature.  If you want to buy a book on-line, you would prefer to connect to Amazon rather than to my blog site. Many more people want to buy books on Amazon than to read my blog. Amazon, with its reputation, preferentially draws people to its major Internet hub site.

One could say that the Saguaro seed “prefers” to make a connection with the Ironwood, the Palo Verde, or the Mesquite. While this process lacks any “conscious” effort it is clear that the seed will not germinate under creosote bushes that drop a chemical that kills any seed growth. Other plants lack the ability to entrap the seed. And, a Cactus seed lying out in the open will die due to exposure from the sun — even if water is available. So, there is a pattern to who and how a Saguaro seed becomes protected.

Preferential attachment, the way something connects, is indeed a pattern in Nature. It is the reason that Nature’s networks are the way they are. It is ubiquitous. It drives social networks (there are only certain people you prefer to communicate with), ecosystems (predators prefer only certain prey – there would be no food chain without a preference for prey), and our own metabolism (without any consciousness molecules prefer to bond only to certain other molecules).

Your comments are greatly appreciated.

The Living Estuary

I am very fortunate to live within two miles of an amazing body of water. It is El Estero del Soldado, an estuary connected to the Sea of Cortez near Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico.

This lagoon is a superorganism. It is a hierarchy of Nature’s patterns — crabs, shrimp, fish, herons, pelicans, ospreys, migrating birds, and three species of the mangrove plant. It is connected to the sea and its creatures are connected to it. This dynamic estuary moves its lifeblood of nutrients from the Sea of Cortez with the ebb and flow of the tides.

In return for sustenance, this estuary and others along the western coast of Mexico help sustain the Sea of Cortez. The sea’s creatures are born in the protected waters of the estuaries but migrate to open water with time. It is because of El Estero del Soldado and other lagoons — nurseries of the sea — that the Sea of Cortez is such a resilient body of water.

As I sit here each day I marvel at this symphony of interdependencies that exist without a conductor. These patterns in Nature, all superorganisms themselves sustaining each other without a leader.

The only superorganism that doesn’t contribute to this vital network of life is man, and his creatures and inventions. With our dogs, our ATVs, our fishing nets, or crabbing forks, our agricultural runoff, and our plans for marinas, we serve to destroy the incredible synergy of these hierarchal superorganisms.

The creatures and organisms of El Estero del Soldado are interconnected because that is how they grow.  But, by us being connected, we destroy.

Synergy and Superorganisms

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We call this “synergy”. The term is used extensively in high pitched events such as motivational seminars. But to describe a superorganism?? Aw come on, Bill !!

I’m going to take it even further by stating that synergy is a unifying process that is a common thread in, for example, anthills, bird flocks, and our human bodies.

As it turns out, anthills, bird flocks, and human bodies are all superorganisms. Organisms consisting of many other organisms. They are all collections of parts that act to create a whole. And, the parts operate using local information from their nearest neighbors. These parts have no idea that they are part of a superorganism. To make it even more intriguing the parts, ants, birds, and cells, themselves are superorganisms.

Ants do their tasks by sensing and depositing pheromone trails. Birds in a flock sense the location, speed, and direction of their nearest neighbors.  Our body cells respond to other immediately adjacent cells.

Ants, birds, and body cells have no concept of the whole. But, all local behavior acts in unity effectively joining together to produce this highly unpredictable anthill, flock, or body. The result is far greater than the sum of the parts.

What we are talking about is not rocket science. It is simple interactions at a local level resulting in a whole that cannot be predicted by mathematics. And it is hierarchal. Superorganisms acting within superorganisms.  All of this can only be described using organizational principles.

Synergy is the result of these organizing principles. If we are inclined to look for some unifying concept to describe all of Nature, try synergy.  And by studying synergy, we begin to realize that everything in Nature is interconnected.

We Are All Connected



While we may know some facts about nature, we do not really “know” nature.


Thomas Merton, the writer, poet, artist, and Trappist monk, once said in his essay entitled “A Search For Solitude”: “Man can know all about God’s creation by examining its phenomena, by dissecting and experimenting and this is all good. But it is misleading, because with this kind of knowledge you do not really know the beings you know. You only know about them”.

Most of our contact with nature is in passing. We drive by. We take a glimpse. We get a quick emotional “fix”. Nothing more. We are not connecting. There is no true immersion. We are not totally engaged in the moment. We are ready to move on rather than linger a while. We are preoccupied with “things” in our lives. We are not beholding nature. 

A forest is entered, not viewed. We do not really engage or know a forest until we are well within it both physically, aesthetically, and spiritually. Engaging nature means “knowing” rather than just “knowing about”. “Knowing” means observing and understanding how nature is connected. It means knowing our interrelationships, our connections, with our surroundings. It means us being connected with those surroundings – those patterns in nature.

LeafBut, how are we connected? Let’s address this question by first looking at a simple plant or tree leaf which you have found and are holding in your hand. That leaf is a pattern in nature. In fact, it is at least three patterns. Now, a pattern in nature can simply be a form or structure – such as the shape of the leaf. But, a pattern can also be a process like a behavior or metabolism in our bodies. A pattern can also mean the relationship between two patterns – like the ecosystem or food chain in a pond or in a forest.

Back to our leaf. It is obviously a physical pattern as we can see from its shape. But, we quickly see a second pattern – the veins in the leaf. These veins are shaped in a tree-like structure we call a fractal pattern. They serve a purpose which is another pattern. They transport energy to the plant and transport waste gases to the leaf for release into the atmosphere. Another pattern is the cells of the leaf. These cells are directly or indirectly connected to the veins. They contain chloroplasts which convert the sun’s energy into useful energy for the plant. These cells also bring in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. They are all process patterns instead of structural patterns.

If we were to take our leaf and sit in a forest asking how we are connected to that forest and to nature, we might start by first looking at a plant’s connections as we just did. Ask the question: How am I connected to this leaf?

We humans have many of the same patterns as the leaf and the plant. First, we share some of the same genes. For example, mustard grass has 15% of the genes in the human genome. And, our lungs and kidneys have the same function and structure as the leaf veins – fractal patterns. Like the leaf, we inhale our atmosphere and exhale our waste products. And, of course, we have cells in our body. The fact is that there is a unity of pattern structures and functions between plants in our forest and us. There are connections on many levels. We know the forest because we know us. When you hold that leaf, you are holding a little bit of you.

Among the many beautiful trees there is one tree, set beside the stream, which calls you. You sit down, your back against the trunk. You feel the strength of that tree as you rest against it. You gradually become absorbed into its life, aware of its roots reaching down to draw strength and sustenance from Mother Earth. Its branches lift toward the sun, absorbing the life force from the sun and the air. You become aware of the flow of life from earth to heaven, the inbreathing and outbreathing. You become the tree.

— Paraphrased from The Still Voice

As we contemplate those features of our leaf that are similar to us, we may ask the following questions.

  • How am I related to this forest?
  • What patterns connect me to it and to Nature?
  • What patterns connect me to you?
  • What is the pattern that connects all of life and all that is not living?

As we sit in our forest, engaging Nature, and pondering these questions, we find ourselves considering the sacred. We find ourselves looking for the Creator in the Created as we ask: “What is the Pattern That Connects?”

In these questions about patterns and connections rests the core of “knowing” nature and nature’s patterns. We may never have complete answers, but we grow to “know” nature as we live the questions themselves.

Poet Alison Hawthorne Deming describes the connections between all things in her wonderfully profound poem “The Web”.

It is possible there is a certain
kind of beauty as large as the trees
that survive the five-hundred year fire,
the fifty-year flood, trees we can’t
comprehend even standing
beside them with outstretched arms
to gauge their span,
a certain kind of beauty
so strong, so deeply concealed
in relationship –black truffle
to red-backed vole to spotted owl
to Douglas fir, bats and gnats,
beetles and moss, flying squirrel
and the high-rise of a snag,
each needing and feeding the other—
a conversation so quiet
the human world can vanish into it?
A beauty moves in such a place
like snowmelt sieving through
the fungal mats that underlie and
interlace the giant firs, tunneling
under streams where cutthroat fry
live a meter deep in gravel, a beauty
fluming downstream over rocks
that have a hold on place
lasting longer than most nations,
sluicing under deadfall spanners
that rise and float to let floodwaters pass,
a beauty that fills the space of the forest
with music that can erupt as
varied thrush or warbler, calypso
orchid or stream violet, forest
a conversation not an argument,
a beauty gathering such clarity and force
it breaks the mind’s fearful hold on its
little moment steeping it in a more dense
Intelligibility, within which centuries
and distances answer each other
and speak at last with one and the same voice.


Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself, or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.


If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.


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