By: Max Goldman
The cheery yet diminutive trout lily demands close inspection from its human co-inhabitants. As an ephemeral wildflower, the trout lily is above ground for only a brief time of the year—when spring temperatures are sufficiently warm, yet the canopy has not become flushed with leaves, allowing sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor. For the eleven or so months of the year when these conditions are not met, the lily persists just beyond our sight in underground roots, waiting to re-emerge early next spring. Unfortunately, its ephemeral nature allows it to go tragically unnoticed by many. Despite being common in forests of the Eastern U.S., many city dwellers are unaware of its existence (Plants). Nevertheless, this species serves as a powerful teacher of ecological thought as it relates to our perception of the risks of climate change.
At its most fundamental level, an ecosystem is made of three constituent parts: abiotic factors, the individual organisms that inhabit a given area, and the connections within and between both entities. It is the connections that are often overlooked in many people’s view of the broader environment. The trout lily and its inextricable entanglement with the rest of the ecosystem, however, serves as a tangible artifact of the connections within an ecosystem. Not only does the trout lily depend on somewhat predictable climatic patterns to emerge at the right time in spring, but it also depends on its arboreal co-inhabitants’ response to warming spring weather. By being so dependent on other aspects of the ecosystem, it is possible to view the trout lily as being the result of the connections that create a favorable habitat for its existence. Similarly, the trout lily is responsible for supporting a variety of different organisms, bridging vital connections that foster coexistence. For example, their seeds are surrounded by a fatty coating known as an elaiosome which encourages ants to disperse their seed in return for a nutritious snack (Muller). From this perspective, some ants’ existence is aided by the presence of the trout lily. From a recognition of connections, it also becomes clear that compromising the dependencies between the trout lily and its environment can be detrimental to both this bronze flower and the organisms that are supported by it.
Unfortunately, as the climate changes, connections between co-inhabiting organisms become stressed. Spring temperatures advance in the calendar year as our planet warms, causing trout lilies to flower earlier and earlier. According to the Cornell Botanic Gardens, this early wildflower has flowered on average ten-and-a-half days earlier from comparisons of average flowering times from 1985 to 2016 (“Trout Lily”). Despite the general trend however, other disruptive aspects of climate change such as unpredictable weather can wreak havoc on temporally specialized species like the trout lily. When viewed alone, the significance of this shift in flowering is difficult to comprehend, but when the connections between the trout lily and its broader ecosystem are understood the ramifications of such changes are easily realized. Without acknowledging the connections between the trout lily and its broader ecosystem, the ants that are sustained by their elaiosomes and the roles of tree leaf out in the success of the trout lily are removed from the equation. Therefore when connections are not given equal weight as the individual themselves, the broader ramifications of a given event go unnoticed. In this regard, the trout lily teaches that in an ecosystem, the connections between objects are as real as the objects themselves.
The field of ecological thought stems from this key realization. Once you recognize the interdependence of life forms related through direct and indirect (sometimes very far removed) connections between entities, it is possible to truly see how earth is a system. The consequences of viewing the ecosystem as a collection of interdependent beings become an almost dizzying reality. Eco-critic Timothy Morton described the predicament well, claiming that the ecosystem is a “mesh” that is both robust and delicate (Morton). The connections integral to an ecosystem both galvanize the structure, creating a tightly wound interdependent cloth, but simultaneously threaten its security, as vital connections are disturbed and severed like loose threads in a blanket. Through an understanding of the connectedness of a system, the ramifications of our actions are readily apparent. Our actions alter the climate, which alter the connections between individuals in the ecosystem, which eventually reverberate back to influence our existence.
From this understanding, ecological thought takes on two distinct roles in our recognition of climate change. First, the consequences our actions have on the ecosystem as a whole are made visible. Second, shifts in the behavior of our co-inhabitants (such as the early blooming trout lily) become personal threats. The unitary nature of the ecosystem means that change is not localized. In this regard, ecological thought puts us at the helm of the ship, but keeps us at the mercy of the wind. Therefore, fostering ecological thought through mindful attention to the information our co-inhabitants are communicating to us reveals a cry of warning signs that make climate change inescapable. Although such a realization is sometimes overwhelming, I believe it can serve as a constant instigator for introspective correction. By tethering climate change to something so omnipresent as the broader landscapes of the ecosystems we call home, the reactionary wail of our co inhabitants inspires betterment, change, and meaningful action.
Plants Profile for Erythronium Americanum (Dogtooth Violet), plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ERAM5
Muller, Robert N. “The Phenology, Growth and Ecosystem Dynamics of Erythronium Americanum in the Northern Hardwood Forest.” Ecological Monographs, vol. 48, no.1, 1978, pp. 1-20., doi:10.2307/2937357
“Trout Lily – Cornell Botanic Gardens.” Cornell Botanic Gardens, cornellbotanicgardens.org/plant/trout-lily/.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2012.