Sunday, October 31, 2010

Autumn Coloration and Economy of Creation

It’s the last day of October and probably the last Sunday afternoon in which to soak in the beauty of autumn coloration at our Midwest latitude and elevation. How beautiful the sugar maples and hickory trees were today as the afternoon rays filtered through their rustling yellow and golden leaves. While hikers, tourists, and artists enjoy the beauty of the autumn colors as green gives way to yellow, golden, and red, there is much more here than meets the eye.

Every Autumn season represents a major biological or ecological event in which millions of tons of leaves on deciduous trees and shrubs enter a transition that eventually leads to the familiar fall of autumn leaves. This marvelous phenomenon which is particularly striking in the temperate latitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia, is a great example of how the created order of planet Earth, noted in our previous entry of Oikonomia (see Finding Purpose in the Created Order: Stewardship of Time), includes a provision for the survival and fruitfulness of the forest trees and shrubs.

Leaf coloration is an outward display of the internal physiological processes that are at work preparing broad, thin, delicate leaves to avoid the rigors of the cold, dry, winter air. Some plant species such as the pines and other conifers retain their leaves (needles) throughout the unfavorable season. In these plants, preparation for winter or drought involves more subtle changes such as development of antifreeze compounds in the needles and twigs. These changes enable evergreens to tolerate cold and dry conditions and allow the leaves or needles to gather the rays of sun to a limited extent in winter and then revive to full activity again in Spring.

Unlike the evergreen trees and shrubs, deciduous species prepare for the harshness of winter by more drastic measures. Each leaf is subject to something like an amputation, more commonly called leaf abscission by physiologists. But, what many observers do not know is that this preparation for winter in the temperate zone begins long before the cold temperatures of October and November arrive.

There are two reasons why cold temperatures themselves are inadequate to prepare trees and shrubs for winter. First, if trees and shrubs are not preconditioned or acclimated to freezing temperatures before they arrive, the freezing conditions will kill the leaves right on their branches. Second, as we can see from the unseasonably warm temperatures of this month, daily temperatures are too variable to be a reliable predictor of closeness to winter. Therefore, our questions must become, “How are trees and shrubs “alerted” to the fact that winter is coming, and how are the leaves prepared for abscission?

Although cold temperature can influence the processes of leaf coloration and abscission, the plants have a more reliable signal–the shortening daylength. Thus, the consistent laws of creation and especially the predictable relationships of planetary motion– the revolution of the Earth around the Sun, and the Earth’s rotation on its tilted axis–afford the trees and shrubs with a predictable pattern of decreasing daylengths such that leaves can be acclimated before cold temperatures arrive.

The fact that deciduous woody plants are programmed to respond to this “warning in advance” of the cold temperatures is a wonderful illustration of how our Creator uses the light of His Word to warn us of danger in advance. Indeed, by His grace, we are often warned repeatedly. Hopefully, we eventually will experience the tender but firm pulling of His Spirit to turn from our wandering tendencies to the safety of godly paths.

Another picture or metaphor of God’s created order is evident through what physiologists have revealed about the changes leaves undergo during their acclimation in response to shortening days of late summer. When we observe the first hint of leaf coloration, it is evidence that the green chlorophyll pigments are being broken down. Along with chlorophyll, many of the leaf proteins are also digested into soluble amino acids. Did you know that leaves can digest their own proteins? The resulting amino acids, soluble nitrogen (e.g. from chlorophyll), and other nutrient constituents of the summer leaf now become transportable. Guess what their destination will be?

Soluble products of pigment and protein digestion are transported from the now coloring leaf to the nearby woody twigs and branches where they will be stored in readiness for growth of new shoots and leaves when the buds begin growing in the spring. So, instead of simply allowing each leaf to abscise from its place on the branch, many of its valuable nutrients are “rescued” from the leaf and retained for use by the parent plant before leaves are lost. Some nutrients, including lots of carbon remain in the falling leaves and become nourishment for arthropods, earthworms, and microbes of the soil below.

We can see in this a marvelous “economy of creation” in which the woody plants retain access to nutrient building blocks while also preparing their leaves for abscission and leaf fall. At the same time the “rescue” of these nutrients is not so efficient or extreme that the leaves are of no food value for consumers in the soil below.

Thus, in response to predictable daylengths which are based on predictable laws of planetary motion, deciduous woody plants are prepared for the onset of cold temperatures through changes in their branches and leaves while at the same time allowing for the conservation of nutrients for future growth.

Thanks be to our Creator for His wisdom as evidenced through His provision of a mechanism to “forewarn” creatures of damaging temperatures as well as to allow conservation of valuable nutrients otherwise lost during leaf fall. May we as God's image-bearers exercise good stewardship of the light of His truth and wisely steward the resources He has loaned to us–our time, opportunities, talents, and natural resources.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Finding Purpose in the Created Order: Stewardship of Time

In a world faced with economic and political uncertainty and instability both within the borders of the USA and beyond, it is not unusual to encounter those who are striving to make sense and purpose out of the world. Who among us has not experienced the dark cloud of hopelessness and despair if even for a short season? Upon what can we rely for our sense of purpose?

The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes states:
Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun?

Of course “the Preacher” eventually proclaims that the real world of meaning and purpose can be found when we realize what is “beyond the sun” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). But suppose we choose to deny that such reality exists “beyond the sun?”

British ethologist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, denies the existence of supernatural reality. Indeed, he expresses a viewpoint and outlook that may be responsible for the widespread sense of hopelessness and gloom among many in our day. Dawkins states:

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

I believe that our sense of purpose and hope is linked to how we perceive the universe. Do we see the universe as being the result of order, design, and purpose; or one that is random, chaotic, and amoral. If one accepts the Bible as authoritative, then its first book, Genesis, can provide a foundation for hope and purpose in life. In my experience, one way that Genesis encourages an outlook of hope and purpose is by its clear teaching that God acted in creation to bring about a world, or kosmos, that is bursting with order and purpose.

The account of creation is an account of how God created matter from nothing. Then He created order, form, and purpose from matter that apparently lacked order, form, and purpose (Genesis 1: 1-2. The subsequent purpose-driven acts of creation introduced order and form to energy-matter, time, and space. First, God separated light from darkness. Then, He separated the heavens from the earth; and He separated the land from the waters.

Then, God created distinct kinds of creatures and enabled them to reproduce according to their kind. Finally, He created mankind as a combination of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. His purpose in creating mankind was to show forth His nature and purpose within the created order as mankind would exercise dominion in a God-honoring manner. Each creature was “programmed” genetically to grow and reproduce under the control of an internal biological “clock” which could be set and reset in response to daily and seasonal cycles. Biological rhythms were possible because God had also ordered time into years based on what we now understand as the time of Earth’s revolution around the Sun; and , months based on lunar events, and days, based on Earth’s rotation.

Finally, God divided time into what we now call weeks of seven days. Unlike years, months, and days, weeks have no known basis to mark their duration in the physical realm. Instead, they are rooted in the purpose of God to institute a seven-day cycle of work and rest. God was the first to demonstrate this ‘cycle’ of a “six-day work week” followed by a day of rest (Genesis 2:1-3.

So, we find a spiritual and emotional “prescription for hopelessness and despair when we acknowledge and submit our lives to the cyclic rhythm of time that God ordained? Submission to a pattern of work and rest requires an act of the will. Can we deliberately stop what has been our focus for six days and say, “Enough.” Have we learned how to be arrested– to submit to God’s purpose that time be given to regular pausing as God did to see what He had done? [God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. Gen. 1:31]. Do we pause and reflect upon the work of our hands and minds, to express thanks to God for giving us the strength and ability to perform the work? If we do this, we are regularly reminded that even our ability to work comes from God; a God Who desires to fellowship with us through His Word and in prayer, and to give meaning and purpose to our lives “under the Sun.”

Dear God, the Eternal One Who has given order to the world around me, help me to live by the order and purposes that you have for my life. You have searched me an known me. You know when I sit down and when I get up again; when I am depressed and when I am joyful. Even before I was formed in my mother’s womb, you knew the number of days that were allotted for me. Help me to trust Your plan for the use of my days, both the days for work and that special day each week for rest and refreshment. Help me on those special days to take time in Your Word and in prayer; and to pursue You, the only one Who ultimately can infuse eternal blessing and, meaning, and purpose into my life. Amen.

In subsequent entries in Oikonomia, we will examine other aspects of God’s created order and how they each provide a framework for our growth and maturation as human beings. Your comments, insights, and questions are ever so welcome here.