Holiday letter

Eurasian water milfoil

Dear Friends,

We hope this letter finds you in good health and abundant happiness. We’re nearing the end of another solar year here, prompting us to think back upon the blessings we’ve enjoyed and the milestones we’ve passed during the course of our most recent swing around our favorite local star.

2006 has been a banner year for the most prolific of our members. The autotrophs continued to profit from the surge in carbon dioxide emissions from the planet’s least charismatic species of megafauna, Homo sapiens. At 3.8 billion years young, you might think cyanobacteria would be ready to slow down, but thanks to their ability to metabolize CO2, their populations expanded in every conceivable niche — even in newly melted portions of Antarctica! The quiet generosity manifested in their habit of fixing nitrogen wherever needed, their close partnerships with other species such as fungi, corals, and plants, and their uncomplaining ability to persist as akinetes when the going gets tough, make them an especially inspiring example during this holiday season.

Also in the spirit of the season, the dinoflagellates have been featured in a number of festive off-shore displays this past year, especially along the coasts of North America, where their so-called “red tides” excited considerable attention from other species.

As expected, those species that make their homes on or in the bodies of Homo sapiens have continued to prosper, some among the viruses and prokaryotes even evolving new strains, thanks to their hosts’ misguided efforts to “control” them. Space doesn’t permit me to mention them all by name, but Entamoeba histolytica, Escherichia coli, and Plasmodium falciparum are among those that have done exceptionally well in 2006.

Many populations of multicellular lifeforms experienced growth spurts during the past year as a consequence of their recent introduction to new ecosystems. Cheatgrass, kudzu, feral housecats and Eurasian water milfoil (pictured on card) are among the hundreds of non-native species currently doing well in North America, for example, and most other land masses large and small are also playing host to armies of newcomers. Though the original invasions might have been a poor idea, we think it’s important to support these species during a long and difficult occupation, as they strive to bring order to chaotic local ecosystems. We hope you’ll join us in saying, “We Support Our Species”!

For most eukarotes, unfortunately, this past year has been a little more challenging. Reef habitats — always among the most sensitive indicators of planetary health — have begun to die back at an alarming rate. Many marine and terrestrial ecosystems are at or nearing collapse, with hundreds of species going extinct each year. But we trust that, like most bad news, this too shall pass. Given its uniquely biocidal tendencies, we’re sure that H. sapiens will very shortly remove itself from the equation. And though in general this will be a very welcome development, we must remember the less fortunate ones in that event — the human parasites and colonists mentioned above — and keep them uppermost in our thoughts and prayers.

They say that every dark cloud has a silver lining. If past experience is any guide, in a brief ten million years or so, most of our currently troubled chloroplast- and mitochondria-bearing phyla will bounce back, stronger than ever, as fully functional components of brand-new food webs. The joy and mystery of this holiday season should serve to remind us that we’re all part of a larger plan, even if we don’t see it, and sometimes sacrifice is necessary to advance the greater good. The more traumatic the extinction event, the more creative and unpredictable the evolutionary consequences. Just look how much more closely knit we became after the great Permian extinction! It really strengthened our bonds as a family.

On a brighter note, our various tectonic activities show no sign of slowing down. Though progress in rift formation and subduction appeared incremental, slow and steady wins the race, as they say. Despite a warming troposphere and stratosphere and the associated adjustments in local and regional climates, our fundamental atmosphere-generating processes continued unabated. And as always, it’s been a good year for the magnetic field, too, protecting all of us here from the otherwise deadly solar wind. A coronal mass ejection on December 13 produced a spectacular geomagnetic storm just in time for the holidays!

Wherever you are in your own orbits, we hope that you are having a safe and joyous holiday season, secure in the blessings of God’s love. We wish you all the best in the coming year.


17 Replies to “Holiday letter”

  1. I have read this a couple times and am still not sure whether I want to laugh or sigh. Both, it seems. Lovely photo of a plant that’s a real problem around here.

  2. Reading between the lines, I sometimes worry about families that write these letters. Earth’s friends in other solar systems have reason to worry.

    I always thought of attempting a really good parody of this holiday tradition. Yours is so good, and so eclipses (sorry) what I was only contemplating, that I have dropped the idea. I don’t think I’ll ever read one of those Pollyannaish letters again without this one ringing in my head. This sings like good crystal under just the right touch. Devastating.

  3. There’s no doubt about it, this is “the” Christmas letter. I think I might scrap mine, and “steal” yours. A lot to think on here. Thanks Dave.

  4. Wonderful. Made my day, and wobbly holiday season. Perspective, smiles, sadness, coggs whirring… Thank you, Dave. Keep being wild, wacky and utterly brilliant.

  5. Thanks to everyone for the kind words! I did have fun writing this, I must admit — and lest you think I’m more knowledgeable than I am, I had to fact-check almost everything.

    I’m surprised that anyone is reading at all now, but I will try to keep posting on at least an every-other-day basis through New Year’s.

    am still not sure whether I want to laugh or sigh

    Me neither. I guess this is gallows humor of the darkest kind — laughing just to keep from crying.

    Peter – I’m glad you enjoyed the parody, but I must tell you that my parents do get (and I hope also write) Christmas letters each year that don’t fit the Pollyannish stereotypes. The best are from creative or otherwise active people who take some space to write about their passions.

  6. Hah! Even more creative than usual, Dave. Keep this one for your highlights. How I wish Whole Earth/Co-Evolution Quarterly were still publishing – this would be right up their alley.

  7. Great letter, Dave. And I only had to look up a couple of species and check out climate webs to understand the references. (feral cats I got) . The only other letters from the Earth that I have enjoyed this much are Twain’s, and I’m sure his much less gentle approach (and his supposed writer) were not all that suited to the Xmas season.

    My son played 5 day host to the Staph family this year with a drug resistant infection brought on by a spider bite. Lest we get too uppity about being the superior species, we always have these encounters to bring us to our senses.

  8. Hi Joan! I’m glad you liked it. Since you were so assiduous in looking up my referecnes, I’ll have to follow up on that Twain reference.

    Spider bites are nasty enough without a staph infection! Yikes.

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