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  • julietertin

On Stress

In 1987, at the base of the St. Catalina mountains, researchers built a prodigious 3.1 acre steel-framed glass vivarium to house an experiment.

Biosphere 2 is the Taj Mahal of lunar visionaries. But, rather than memorializing the dead body of a favorite wife, this scientific palace houses the expired dreams of building agricultural ecosystems in space. It was named Biosphere 2 because Earth itself is Biosphere 1 (the only life-sustaining system in the universe, as far as researchers in the 90s knew). The structure contains five separate biomes, including a million gallon ocean with a coral reef, a mangrove swamp, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, and a tropical rainforest. The experiment also once contained eight scientists for two years without any interruption or contact from the outside world.

The team of scientists confined from September 1991-1993.


Disclaimer: if this sounds like a B film, that’s because it is. However, Biosphere 2 was originally designed and utilized as a legitimate scientific study.

Whether its is (or isn’t) is largely up for interpretation; a few studies I skimmed suggested more psychological findings amongst the researchers than quantitative environmental discoveries, not to mention that nearly 40 years have passed since. The methodology is dated, the project was originally privately funded by an oil company, and when the chips fall, the palace currently stands open to the public at Arizona State University as a piece of scientific history and small-scale environmental research.

But one very peculiar finding struck me.

In Biosphere 2, plant and tree species grew more rapidly than their outdoor counterparts. Seedlings shot up, in many cases so fast that they collapsed on themselves and died. Why? There was no measurable difference in sunlight nor climate; those factors had been specifically replicated by the architects of the experiment.

The surprising variable was wind.

In nature, wind beats and bends a sapling’s stalk, bending and bullying it.

Exhibit A: my poor pepper plants this week


To cope with this stress, the plant develops cell growth in a variety of directions, not just up, toward the sun. These are called cambial cells, and they grow asymmetrically or elliptically – and not uniformly. These special cells form in response to wind, but also prevent branches from cracking under their own weight. This is why tree trunks tend to be more circular and branches more ovate (first compression wood forms heavily on the bottom of the branches to add support; later, tension wood forms above the branch to brace against downward force).

I like the concept.

These cells make up a genre called reaction wood, and reaction wood is what allows the bark on branches and intersections to bend at harder angles (or sustain more stress) without breaking. The plant autonomously adapts to the environment and tunes itself, or organizes it’s own biology, to flourish within its setting. This is called self-optimization.

It makes sense for plants, but it makes sense for people too.


Trees grow along on what botanists call the axiom of uniform stress.

As the elements assail them, and the sun coaxes them up, their anatomy reacts accordingly. This dynamic behavior allows them to survive and thrive (both, which is also interesting). This is also why tree trunks are heavier at the bottom than the top; this explains the L-shaped ponderosas that survive avalanches and the desert trees growing at hard angles in wind-ridden environments. The structure will adapt to its environmental stressors.

This is why you find people who are bent in all directions with all manner of thicknesses. We, too, grow along the axiom of uniform distress.

Perhaps there is wisdom in stepping back and analyzing our own structures. I think I could calculate backward from my abnormalities, my deformed growth patterns, my emotional reaction wood, and measure which factors had the greatest effect (or just as importantly, which ones had no effect/the best effects).

The tree will always grow in a way that reduces its own stress. It’s in our biology, regardless of how we are nurtured.

The storm coming off the lake


From this perspective, it matters little where the wind came or where the seed happened to land and take root. The tree can be as angry as it wants at the avalanche, but it won’t undo anything. So few things we say and choices we make can be unmade.

My analogy falls short because trees adapt to their environment without self-sabotage or free will. I get that. Those things complicate our lives tremendously. We often cause our own demise or uproot when we should be planted – or stay planted when it’s time to uproot.

Secondly, I don’t think that energy spent assigning blame is energy spent growing. It’s important to call an avalanche an avalanche after understanding that, quickly let it go. That’s the advice I give myself. Acceptance has little to do with endless evaluation, hypotheses, and research.

We have a lifetime to process our growth rings.

And don’t forget:

the seedlings who were never battered or bent might have grown exponentially at first, but ultimately they could not carry their own weight and collapsed before maturing.

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