The Circle of Life

Symbiosis – The Magic of Chemistry in the Circle of Life


I grew up in Bangor, Maine, a town on the Penobscot River where the annual salmon run was a rite of spring and a rite of passage for fishermen. Alas, yes, they were all men back in the 1950s and 60s. They wore their best gear from L.L. Bean and were secretive about the multicolored and intricate lures. The silvery shimmering salmon gathered in the Salmon Pool waiting for the Salmon Run to be opened. The salmon run was a gate in the damn – allowing the salmon to seek the fresh water they needed to play out their part in the Circle of Life and providing an opportunity for the men to revisit their hunter/gatherer origins.


The Salmon Pool was thick with anglers vying to catch the first salmon – which was presented to the President of the United States. Not the fish, nor the men, nor the president were thinking about their destiny as fertilizer.


Only the anadromous shad, salmon and striped bass live in the sea and seek out fresh water to spawn. Diadromous eels go the other way. I wonder if they recognize their pescardine sisters and brothers as they pass like ships in the night?


Any gardener knows that 10-10-10 (nitrogen, phosphorus and potash) is the best fertilizer combination for a healthy vegetable garden but who thinks about the 5-2-2 fertilizer value of a salmon when they are enjoying that traditional salmon and first garden peas dinner on the 4th of July? Who would guess that the famous pine trees in the Pine Tree State of Maine grow three times as fast on streams that have the luck to have spawning salmon make a spring visit? Read More


Why do fish and pine trees need each other? Symbiosis.  Who knew?

Read more about how the tradition was stopped for 15 years because of pollution and how a clean up reversed the trend.  Nature takes it back quite quickly.


A Half Century of Scientific Inquiry  – Steps 1-5 Steps 1-5 on the Circle of Life Road
Step 1

I am a gardener.  I have been hard at it for over 50 years.  In my twenties, during my back-to-the-land adventures, my resources were limited. I read Mother Earth News, The Whole Earth Catalogue, The Farmer’s Almanac. We bought a one room schoolhouse  5 miles down a dirt road in Atkinson, Maine.

I consulted my neighbors who had lived on this land for generations.  Some of the advice was charming, weird lore with no scientific basis.  Many of my neighbors did not need to change their name when they were married, being already related.  Yet, other neighborly advice was amazingly effective. Accidental chemistry learned in a living lab!    Read More about these ideas.

I also consulted the other hippies who had arrived from New York and Boston in the 1960’s and were living on their beautiful old farms supported with their beautiful old trust funds. I was so jealous. They knew less than me about gardening because I had actual plants growing in the backyard where I grew upI managed to monetize all my new knowledge by creating a hand silkscreened herb chart which I sold at craft fairs. Now I have most all human knowledge in my pocket. Science is, literally,  at my fingertips.

The First Step on the Circle of Life Road starts with a seed.  Just as the incredibly complex organism which becomes a human being starts with two cells, an 8 foot sunflower starts with a tiny, tiny seed.


It almost makes me think there might be a G(g)od(s). Defined.


How to start your seedlings (2 minutes)

The Second Step is to plant your seedlings.  Many people say things to me like, ” You have a green thumb!” or “Wow, you have a really good gardening spot!” I always find this a little amusing. My thumbs are not green from gardening but my fingernails are definitely dirty! The seed to sunflower phenomenon has a certain amount of magic embedded in it but when you get to the growing part,  success is all about the science of four: ROTTEN VEGETABLES, FISH GUTS, POOP, and SUN

Rotten Vegetables  Composting (in 2 minutes)

The Third Step
If you have been wondering what happened to the chemistry of fish, here it comes.

Fish Guts.
Since I have chosen to grow old and die here in the Mini-Apple (Minneapolis), as I call my adopted home, with a nod to THE city, The Big Apple, I am 1500 miles away from any spawning salmon.  No worries, you can buy fish guts by the quart or the gallon. It, also called fish emulsion, comes from Alaska, the other salmon spawning sex spot. It delivers a 5.1.1 snack to your vegetables just when they need it.

Poop. Every spring, I make a pilgrimage in search of poop. Not fresh poop – old, old poop. It also matters whose poop it is.  Chicken poop is REALLY hot with too much nitrogen.  Just like Goldilocks found the chair which was just right,  I found  just the right poop from the majestic horse. Read more about poop.

The Fourth Step

Sun. Finally, if you do not have at least 6 hours of  the warm life giving sun on your vegetables each day, all of your Circle of Life Chemistry power will be for naught.

The birds need it, the bees need it. The horses, the fish and the trees need it. But not too much sun. Maybe we humans need to stop destroying our ozone layer.  We are a species that does not know when to stop much of anything for our own good.   Should we stop eating too much,  burning too much oil,  forcing our farm crop into higher production with chemical fertilizers which then kill our waterways and injecting our meat with antibiotics and steroids?  China is not the only place with horrendous meat production practices. We are the most successful predators on the face of the earth and we do not even have any serious teeth or claws! But I digress. We were talking about the Symbiosis of ROTTEN VEGETABLES, FISH GUTS, POOP,  and SUN.

The Fifth Step on the Circle of Life Road.
Just as the salmon migrate up the Penobscot River to the fresh water every spring, I migrate to the Mexican sun every winter. I fly on Sun Country airlines to the sun country. Yes The sun drives The Circle of Life Road.

The message here is that no matter where you are on the planet, the Circle of Life is the same. Trees, people, and fish are born, nourish themselves with exactly what they need, including the sun,  and then die.

That’s Magic AND Science.


Read more about this Garden Sculpture by Barbara Bridges  Sun Power