I was watching leaves fall from a sugar maple tree. Dry, a little curled at the tips, mottled yellow, they fell one at a time from the tip of a twig where they spent the whole summer. They turned a few times in the air as they came down, past larger limbs and branches, past the bulwark trunk that held them high, and then finally resting on the ground. By next summer, most of these leaves won’t be recognizable as such — as beautifully green, incredibly efficient solar collectors and food producers; they’ll be soil again, turned into nutrients that other plants and trees will take up to make new leaves.
It got me to thinking about scale and efficiency, words which, these days, we most often associate with economics.
What I was thinking about was the reality that a tree, and other creatures in the so-called “natural world,” can really only operate on a fixed efficiency and scale. What I mean is that the life processes of a tree, say, or a deer or a mosquito — that is, the quantity and quality of stuff which these creatures must consume in order to live — can only happen at the speed in which our earth and the sun provide them.
If the sun would shine brighter or longer during the year or more intensely, then maybe a tree and its leaves could ratchet up its efficiency and productivity, and be a more — what, fulfilled? — tree or something. But of course, there is no dimmer switch for the sun (although we may discover that climate change has something of that effect). So a tree has to make do with solar and earthly resources as they are.
Lately, we humans have figured out how to play with rates of scale and efficiency, largely through ingenious uses of oil and electricity. We have learned how to do things at unimaginable speeds, and at scales that are both larger and smaller than most of us can truly appreciate.