I dropped to my knees like I’d found nuggets of gold. The old chestnut was mixed in with the recent load of firewood I’ve been stacking for next winter. One light tap of the maul, and the straight grain gave way, spilling three fat wood roaches out into the sawdust. I should not tell you how excited I was. I will tell you that the wife was not sympathetic when I offered to let her see more closely the biology lesson wriggling in the palm of my hand.

I suppose it’s an acquired taste, peculiar to biology teachers. And I suppose it was a kind of biology lab nostalgia, remembering that if I had termites or wood roaches at hand, I’d get at least one WOW! from an otherwise unreachable student.

Why? Because the guts of these wood-eating creatures are literally pulsing with life–an ecosystem consisting of dozens–some say hundreds–of specialist microbes (bacteria and protozoans) that have the unique chemical ability to dissolve and digest cellulose, which of course is the chief structural component of plant life. We have our own unique gut microbiome, but the wood roaches is far more interesting to look at through a phase contrast microscope when all you’ve seen before are flat, lifeless, blue-stained prepared slides of onion skin or frog blood.

â–¶ Symbiotic Organisms in Termites – YouTube

You might watch a half a minute of the termite video just long enough to see the frenetic whirling flagellates (Trichonympha comes to mind) and the oscillating stick-like bacteria do their dance.

But this is more than entertainment. The chemistry of these microbes is getting a lot of recent attention as we look at alternative liquid fuels to replace today’s petroleum based combustibles. If this living chemistry could be mimicked in sufficient quantity, the efficiency of energy conversion would increase hugely. Hopefully then we could avoid growing plants for this purpose and use agricultural wastes instead. But then there’s that much organic residue that is not returning to the soil.

â–¶ Fuel From Termite Guts? (Brainstorm Ep94) – YouTube

And here’s the thing (you knew there’d be a thing): I’m happy to be among the few that has been privileged to see such an invisible reality as this.

The astronauts came back from space having seen the planet in a different light–through a different lens, you might say. They called that spiritual-philosophical shift “the Overview Effect.”

I think something similar happens when you suddenly comprehend that life goes on in rich variety in a drop of pond water–or a termite’s gut. Maybe we’ll call this way of seeing worlds “the Underview  Effect.”

Published by fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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