Survival of the Versatile

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“Versatile cousins of the sunflower family made a long journey to Hawaii millions of years ago. It’s adaptivity gave it a destiny.” – The Eternal Fishnu

I always thought that the majestic silverswords endemic to Haleakala were related to yuccas or some sort of agave. The photo below is a blooming silversword I took on a trip to Maui back on 2003. Doesn’t it look like a yucca or agave? Especially with that towering stalk of flowers reminiscent of “century plants”. What else could it be?

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So a couple of years ago while hiking in Utah, I photographed this blooming yucca below.

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A yucca I photographed along a great hike in Southern Utah.

I planned to make a farcical Facebook post featuring the above photo going something like this:

Voice: Brah! You from Hawaii!

Me: (Look to my left and see this yucca talking to me.) Yeah, Brah! Wahiawa, my maddah’s side, Kaneohe, on my faddah’s side. What island you from?

Yucca: I not from deah, baht I get cuzins dat leeve on Haleakala! Nevah seen dem fo mee-lee-enz years!

But before I hit Post, I wondered if my assumption about silverswords being a yucca was correct. I’m not sure why I wondered about it. To me it was so obviously related to yuccas that I hadn’t ever before thought to question it.

Silversword Alliance

It took a bit of trial and error to stumble across the key words: silversword alliance. Most of what I learned about the history of the silver swords are from a few Web pages:

To summarize, the majestic silversword appears to be a descendant of a very humble little plant off the West coast of the U.S. colloquially called a “tar weed”.  These tar weeds are in the asteraceae family, along with sunflowers and daises. I’ve read estimates of the first asteraceae immigrant landing in Hawaii as between ten million and one million years ago.

But there’s more to the interesting notion of a humble desert plant making a very long journey over an ocean to end up a grand tourist attraction. The silver sword is only one of about thirty descendants of this tar weed immigrant to Hawaii. That is, about thirty very different-looking plants from Kauai all the way to the Big Island. It’s only through recent DNA technology that this has come to be known.

It’s something that the references listed above call adaptive radiation. A single species can relatively quickly evolve to a diverse set of species occupying unique niches. I’m not sure what Hawaii was like a few million years ago, but today climates in the Islands range from tropical beaches, to rain forests, to deserts, to snow-capped mountains, to the high desert climate of Haleakala. That’s a lot of niches to fill.

Coincidentally, on our Oregon Coast trip a few weeks back, we stopped at the John Day Fossil Beds in central Oregon. If you visit the Visitor Center, you’ll see an exhibit on adaptive radiation related to horses. Unless you’re a paleontologist or something, how many times in one day will you think of adaptive radiation?

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A panel from the John Day Fossil Beds on the Adaptive Radiation of horses.

The fact that many very similar flowers are so profuse in the Southwest Deserts of the U.S. lends to the versatility of this plant. If any plant can be the founder of the species of the Silversword Alliance, it would be the tar weed. All the way from John Day Fossil Beds to the Pacific Shore at Lincoln City, we found many sorts of asteraceae, happy as can be.

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The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet with one of the many members of the vast sunflower family (Asteraceae) near the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon.

I’m not positive if the yellow flower from Southern Utah I photographed below is a “tar weed”. It has the sticky stuff on the green parts, the sunflower-like blossoms, petals that split at the end. Throughout my vacationing around the U.S. Southwest, I’ve noticed dozens of varieties of these plants. I’m at least fairly sure it’s at least related to what I see as “tar weeds” by Googling: tar weed california

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Whichever tar weed is the founding ancestor of the Silversword Alliance, and that species is probably long gone, it was hardy enough to somehow make a 2000 mile journey and adapt in multiple ways to a place of  highly varied in climates.

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Upon a closer look at the flowers of the silversword, they really do look like miniature sunflowers.

Humble

Due to over-grazing by introduced goats, deer, and cattle last century, the silverswords of Haleakala are critically endangered. There is an irony in that this descendant of such a humble “weed” as the tarweed is now one of the most coddled organisms on Earth, protected by the Endangered Species Act.

It took a tough, versatile organism to make the 2000+ mile trip over a huge ocean to fill not one, but multiple niches via adaptive radiation. What does this say about keeping an empty mind ready to be re-filled? Why is an empty mind, free from clinging to all preconceived notions, the key to no suffering? Because there is only constant change – as the saying goes, All things will pass.

There is no universal template for human, or deer, or even suffering. There are only momentary aggregates of energy. The tarweed seed is such a seed that is 100% accepting  of change. So there it is today in the Hawaiian Islands, in many forms of this humble plant, unrecognizable from the fixed, brittle notion of just a tarweed.

 

2 Corinthians 4:17-18

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“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

Mrs. Hanamoku and I are half-way through a two-day road trip from our home to Lincoln City on the Oregon Coast. We’re meeting up with my step-father, mother, and a few of my step-father’s friends. We’re spending three days with them there, followed by the two-day trip back home.

My step-father has advanced cancer and his prognosis is bad. But it seems to be under control for the moment. So he’s taking a break from chemo to spend some quality time with his family and friends who are in the Pacific Northwest.

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To the Eternal Fishnu, the tens of millions of years of processes that yielded these wonderful patterns is no time at all. These formations are practically brand new compared to his Devonian period. How distorted is the reality painted by our little human brains confined to a little spot of space and time.

Yesterday we stopped at the John Day Fossil Beds for a little bit of hiking. Places such as these where minimal vegetation exposes patterns and shapes forged over a very long time over huge areas paints vivid reminders that our Earthly brain of two to three pounds probably doesn’t know much.

The scale of reality is so immense we can’t begin to imagine it. Even many of my highly skilled software developer colleagues forget that systems are very different when we’re talking about handling a few thousand elements of data versus even a few billion, much less trillions. And a trillion really is a small number!! You have 30 or so trillion cells in just your own body!

Say the words, “Ten to ten to the tenth.” Wasn’t that easy to say? Well, maybe not with all those words starting with “t”. The “ten to the tenth” is ten billion, sort of close to the number of humans currently inhabiting Earth. If we “wrote” that number out with people, starting with me as the “1”, and all the other seven billion people in the world lined up next to me acting as “0s”, that would form a number still three billion zeros short, give or take, of ten to the ten to the tenth – virtually zero!

How valid is that point? Does anything have numbers that big? Yes. Perhaps not in the conventional “counting” sense, such as counting the number of copies of a book sold or the number of atoms in the Universe. It does, however, arise daily in the very real combinatorics issues I deal with that plays a big part in my job. That is, exploring as many possibilities for business decisions as possible.

You’ve probably heard it said that there are something like 10 to the 120 possible games of chess. That’s a really big number – so big that hardly anyone will deal with anything remotely close to such a number.

But chess is a very simple game – a board of 64 squares, 32 total pieces moving 6 unique ways. It’s also sequential, meaning pieces move one at a time as opposed to all at the same time. Remember, we’ve already made a computer program that can play this game better than any human. That means it is a simple game.

The world of business is an incredibly more complicated game. It’s not hard to come up with ten to the ten to the tenth possible ways business evolve. It may not seem like such an impossible task to make decent predictions because we can predict particular things fairly well within the next day, week, or month.

But add up a lot of predictions, all the things that go on in commerce – all those possible actions of seven billion people, thousands of governments at various levels, countless natural phenomenon – even over a short period of time. We end up with even more than ten to the ten to the tenth possible scenarios. All the planning by the Dream Team of planners will do a shitty job of predicting the state of business even a few years from now.

The Universe is vast beyond what we can actually imagine.

What does this have to do with my step-father? Dealing with mortality. There’s a good chance your brain is wrong about what it thinks is going to happen after the thirty trillion or so cells in your body ceases to operate as a team. Heaven or Hell? Reincarnated? Or do you just end right there? Whether or not we believe in an afterlife, our human brains are centered around our instinct to survive.

Personally, I have to conclude that in the unimaginable vastness of the Universe, there’s a pretty good chance there’s some outcome my human brain with this powerful instinct to survive would be happy with. All the matter that have been a part of you and all the matter you’ve affected throughout your life are an intricate part of all that is yet to come. Remember, Hollywood really screwed up our idea of what really happens if even little old you had not existed.

Our Last Sunset at Lincoln City.
“All beings are temporal phenomena, intricately woven into Everything, all intricately of great value to the One.” – The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet

The verse, 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, is often attributed as the basis of our phrase, “This too shall pass.” That phrase is usually meant to comfort us in bad times. However, what if you are near the end and there is no good time to follow? Everything passes from our lowly human point of view. But in the scheme of the Universe, which is much beyond that, everything that has been and will be is there.

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“You live somewhere in time. Maybe not tomorrow or next year or next century, but somewhere in time.” – The Eternal Fishnu

In the context of this blog, the word, “unseen”, in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, means that because our brains are puny, just because we can’t fathom something doesn’t mean it’s not there. Have faith that “the numbers” are overwhelmingly on your side – that in the Universe there exists more than your brain can conjure up. As Mrs. Hanamoku very facetiously says to me, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”

In a few hours, Mrs. Hanamoku and I will head out from Prineville over to Lincoln City. During that six hour drive, people at my place of employment will be getting on without me, busy with more planning than doing. That is, worried more about a future projected from past experiences, and not focused on what they should be doing now.