Strong Enough to Bend

Willow Tree - Strong Enough to Bend

In 1988 Tanya Tucker had a country song titled “Strong Enough to Bend” that had a great message. In the song, she compared a willow tree to human relationships. She pointed out that willows can survive because their limbs can bend instead of breaking.

Interestingly enough, that concept is present in most living things in the creation. God rarely uses stiff materials in what He creates. On the other hand, humans tend to use rigid materials such as metals, ceramics, dry wood, etc. In your own body, how many stiff materials are there? Bones and teeth are about it. These are components designed for a specific purpose where hardness and stiffness are required. Most things in the biological world are soft, not brittle.

A classic example of the benefit of being soft and not hard is kelp and other marine algae. Those plants live in the violent world of surf. If you have ever surfed, you know the power of waves. I have seen surfboards thrown against rocks, pounded by the waves, and turned into a pile of shredded plastic in a matter of minutes. Kelp live in the surf with one end attached to rocks and the surface of the plant exposed to sunlight for photosynthesis. Kelp can survive because they are strong enough to bend.

Waves produce flows that reverse direction every few seconds. As soon as the plant grows longer than the distance the local water travels between reversals, the additional length of plant material is swept back and forth with the water. The plant literally goes with the flow. Since it moves the same direction as the water and at the same speed, there is no friction between the plant and the water. Kelp can grow to lengths well over 130 feet (40 m). A rigid plant like an oak tree in the surf would be pounded to splinters in a few hours.

Closer to home for most of us, are the leaves of land plants. Take a cardboard tube like a paper towel tube and try to bend and twist it. Then make a lengthwise slit in the tube and try it again. Notice how much easier it is after you cut the tube. The reason leaves have exotic shapes is to allow them to bend and twist rather than breaking in high winds or creating wind resistance that would take down the tree.

This design shows highly complex engineering, and our lives exist because of it. Imagine what would happen if our skin, eyes, ears, stomach, blood vessels, hair, etc. were not made of soft, pliable material. A good sneeze could shatter our face! Our Creator knew that being strong enough to bend was critical for our existence.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Ant Farmers at Work

Ant Farmers at Work
Leafcutter Ants at Work Taking Leaf Cuttings to the Colony

We commonly think of animals as opportunists. They find their food and eat it or store it for future eating. One of the characteristics of humans that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we prepare an environment that produces our food. Farmers plant seeds and tend the crops by fertilizing, protecting from threats, and watering when necessary. They also make arrangements for future crops. Entomologists are finding more and more cases where insects do these same things. For example, ant farmers work together to produce their food.

In Fiji, a plant called Squamellaria grows in a cluster with jelly-bean shaped bubbles inside. The opening into the clusters is just the right size for the Philidris nagasau ant to get into the bubbles. As the bubbles send out shoots, the ants defecate inside the cluster, fertilizing the plant. When the plant blooms, the ants eat the nectar it produces. The ants then plant the seeds where new clusters can grow.

Another family of ant farmers is the Atta genus. In their farms, they grow a fungus species that they nourish with leaf cuttings. After cutting off leaf sections, worker ants carry them back to the colony. As the workers transport the leaf cuttings, others ride on the leaves to protect against a parasitic fly species. You might call that pesticide.

At the colony, other ants pulverize and defecate on the leaves to make them ready to nourish the fungi. The ants can’t eat the leaves, but the fungi are their food, and only one fungus species is edible. If another fungus species develops, the ants produce a toxin, which destroys only the invading fungus. This is herbicide use at its best. The Atta ants inspect the fungus several times a day, tending it carefully. The system is so efficient that one Atta nest can grow enough fungus food to feed seven-million resident ants. In the process, the ant colony produces fertile soil that promotes plant growth.

If you saw the 1994 Disney animated Lion King movie, you saw Atta ant farmers at work. Remember that fungi are not photosynthetic. No sunlight is needed for Atta ants to grow their food. They simply carry in the nutrients for the fungi to grow, and then they eat the fungi. We do the same thing with much of our meat, providing plant material for chickens or pigs to eat, and then eating the animals that we fed. In the case of the ants, they eat only one food, which simplifies farming enormously.

We know it takes incredible planning and design to manage a farm. No chance process produces most of the foods we eat. It requires meticulous planning and careful application of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. As scientists study insect farming, they see a design that is carefully and intricately produced.

Data on the ant farmers came from Science News, April 25, 2020, pages 16-20. The subtitle of the article is, “Could our agricultural role models have six legs?” This reminds us of the challenge in Proverbs 6:6-8: Go to the ant … consider her ways, and be wise. She has no guide, overseer or ruler but provides her food in the summer and gathers her food in harvest.” The title of the article is “The First Farmers.” We might amend that to be “God’s First Farmers.”

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Click HERE to learn about a special tool leafcutter ants use.

Leaf Designs to Preserve Trees

Leaf Designs to Preserve Trees
We live in a part of the world where there are many trees. We also experience heavy winds that frequently blow down human-made structures. It is interesting that healthy trees are almost never blown down. When you stop to think about it, you would expect trees to be major victims of high winds. That is not the case, and it is due to leaf designs to preserve trees.

To survive strong winds, trees need two things. The most obvious is structural support–strong, flexible branches, sturdy trunks, broad bases, and good root anchorage. A more subtle requirement is leaf designs to preserve trees. Leaves must have minimal wind drag. A fluid, such as air, flowing around an object generates drag. To minimize drag requires some streamlining to reduce the amount of friction between the fluid and the object. A highly streamlined object will usually be gently rounded upstream and elongated and pointed downstream.

For healthy trees, the leaves offer the most surface area and thus the most drag. Trees most commonly blow over when in full leaf, so leaf design is critical to the survival of the tree. Different trees have different design features, but all of them are designed to avoid destruction in a wind storm. American holly leaves have a method that involves the leaves being able to flatten themselves against each other. When the wind becomes strong, the leaves turn and lie flat significantly reducing the drag.

Tulip tree leaf design allows the leaves to roll up when the wind gets strong. The blade of the leaf points away from the stem. As the wind blows against the leaf, it forms a cone pointing upwind at the stem. The blade forms the broad area of the cone away from the wind direction. The higher the wind, the tighter the cone and the less the wind resistance. Black locust leaves similarly roll together to produce a cylinder.

Each of these designs depends on the properties of the leaf. If the leaves were too stiff, they could not assume the right geometry. The flexibility of their stems has to be high, and the surface of the leaf must be carefully designed and restricted. You can argue that natural selection does all designing and that given enough time it will select the proper shape. But remember that changes in climate mean you don’t have infinite time to apply the process.

God’s engineering wisdom gave us leaf designs to preserve trees. The leaf design allows the longest season for each tree. Sit in your backyard on a breezy day and watch what the leaves do to preserve that tree you prize so highly.
–John N. Clayton © 2018