Spring comes as the earth quickens its pace toward the cosmic explosion of that young star we call the Sun. Physicists reckon the Sun is merely one of the infinite shards of the Big Bang that took place 14 billion (or so) years ago. Spring’s explosive past makes it only fitting that so many historic wars, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, have combusted into being in springtime, the season of insurrection and resurrection. From Bannockburn to Culloden and from Waterloo to D-Day, battles have bloomed in springtime sunlight.
It seems perplexing and ironic that spring, with its panoply of tulips and newborn lambs, should be so hospitable to bloodshed. Folklore erroneously links spring with human sexuality and fecundity (ergo Easter bunnies and eggs), but it is autumn, not spring, when opportunities for youthful couplings flourish. Love and romance traditionally blushed in autumn (wild oats were sown at harvest festivals), maturing around the vernal equinox, giving rise to the season’s tradition of weddings. Stravinsky captures the smoldering, flaring turbulence in “The Rite Of Spring”.
In the realms of human and biological life, spring is far more apt to be the scene of conflict rather than of peace. In contrast to the other seasons, spring is uniquely violent and confrontational. Like the asymmetry of many wars, the non-linearity of the earth’s orbit seems to catch us off-guard. For most of the year, strife is nature’s norm; only with the arrival of the dark, cold days of deep winter does it pause to catch its breath and nurse its wounds.
We might regard war as one of mankind’s enduring achievements, one that originated with the emergence of our species. But nature has been a theatre of war for the planet’s 6 billion years of existence. Life—human, animal and plant—is a byproduct of an ancient worldwide war waged between protean life forms. The combatants were simple, primitive organisms, myriad groups of archaea and bacteria. The stakes were the ability to harvest sunlight, the greatest prize in cosmic history.
The “Great Photosynthesis War” commenced when early bacteria were attacked by predatory protoplant cells. The combat, lasting millennia, resulted in a treaty, a classic compromise between the protoplants and the bacteria, and chloroplasts were the outcome. With their introduction, the “nation” of organic carbon was born, and quickly spread across the face of the earth. Sunlight was the primordial war’s deciding factor. No doubt the crucial moments in the biological battle came in spring, when, as today, the sun reaches toward its highest point—the longest day.
Military history is rife with springtime scenes of dawn battles. The light is better and lasts longer. In the dark of night, or drear of winter, it is difficult to see, much less hit an enemy. In war, night is best utilized by keeping your enemy awake; the origin of psychological warfare commenced by disturbing the dreams of generals, so that, come first light, the sleep-shorn commanders would be less commanding, yawning the day’s battle plan to their weary troops.
From the standpoint of strategy, initiating the battle at dawn allowed for a longer day, and commensurately more carnage: such is the calculus of war. As it was in the microbial beginning, one side wants what the other possesses. We seem to have learned little from our understanding of plant evolution’s symbiotic outcome. Diplomats and generals should study biology.
The dynamics of man-made wars, ancient and modern, are a distant mirror of the establishment of symbiosis in living organisms. This ancient bacterial war that led to human life is reenacted and memorialized each spring by the arrival of the first green shoots of spring. It was only a few billion years ago that the First Earth War exploded across the primordial seas, a marine conflict that resulted in what scientists call The Great Oxidation Event, and which caused in turn that phenomenon we call life.
This spring as we admire our emerging plants, waxing with energy, let us remember our shared paleobotanic ancestors. Let us calm our raging tempers and still our quickening blood. As the world’s great religions assert, within the specter of war resides the glow of peace, whether we are in meditation, at the sacrificial altar or before the cross. We can, as we stand in the light of day, choose the good or the evil, life or death, the sword or the plowshare.
Grab a hoe.