Methanogens and the End of the World

I. In the Deepest of Places…

They’re possibly the oldest living beings on earth. They possess the power to create and destroy life-giving climates. They thrive in the deepest of places and most extreme conditions – submarine springs, volcanic vents, hot desert sands, glacial ice – as well as in marshlands, rice paddies, landfills, sewage plants, and in the guts of termites, ruminants, and humans. Discovering their existence forced scientists to restructure the phylogenetic tree and rethink the origins of life.

Their name is only just beginning to make it into our mainstream vocabulary. They are methanogens.

Methanogens are methane generating microorganisms who can only survive in anaerobic environments. Because of their microscopic size and inability to survive in air containing oxygen they weren’t identified until the 20th century. Yet suspicions about their existence had been inferred.

Gas collecting in the marshes near Angera JPEG

In 1776 Alessandro Volta discovered the flammability of marsh gas on Lake Maggiore. Poking the reedy bottom of the marsh with his cane he collected the bubbles in a gas container then set fire to it, producing ‘a beautiful blue flame’. Natural scientists called this ‘swamp air’ ‘carbonated hydrogen’ and in 1865 ‘methan’ was proposed. ‘Methane’ was accepted in 1892.

Pierre Jacques Antoine Béchamp was the first to suspect methane was formed by a microbiological process as the result of a fermentation experiment in 1868. It was not until 1936 that the first methanogen, Methanobacillus omelianskii, was isolated with Delft canal sediment by Horace Albert Barker. This marked ‘the beginning of the modern era for the study of methanogenesis.’

Scientists went on to find out methanogenesis, a form of anaerobic respiration which uses carbon rather than oxygen as an electron acceptor, takes place in three ways: carbon dioxide reduction (hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis), cleavage of acetates (acetoclatic methanogenesis), and the breakdown of methylated compounds (methylotrophic methanogenesis).

II. Ancient Things

In 1997, during an experiment with RNA, Carl Woese discovered that methanogens are phylogenetically different from bacteria and eukaryota (this branch includes fungi, plants, and animals) establishing a third domain on the phylogenetic tree.

450px-Phylogenetic_tree.svg

This new group of microorganisms was named archaea, ‘ancient things’. Because their ‘methanogenic metabolism is ideally suited to the kind of atmosphere thought to have existed on the primitive earth: one that was rich in carbon dioxide and included some hydrogen but virtually no oxygen’, Woese asserted they could be the earliest living beings on our planet.

According to James F. Fasting their generation of methane, a greenhouse gas, from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, kept the young earth warm between 3.5 and 2.5 billion years ago when the sun burnt only 80 per cent as brightly as today. They played a significant role in the chain of events that led to the development of other life forms.

Methanogens were driven underground by the great oxygenation event 2.3 billion years ago – a time that corresponds with the first Global Ice Age. The world-changing effects of methanogenesis were felt again 252 million years ago when a bacteria transferred two genes to methanosarcina. This allowed them to feed on carbon on the sea floor, releasing immense amounts of methane into the atmosphere, raising the temperatures and acidifying oceans, leading to the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, which killed 96% of species on the earth.

III. A Dangerous Game

The greenhouse gases responsible for global warming in our current era are carbon dioxide (82%), methane (10%), nitrous oxide (5%), and fluorinated gases (3%). Although methane only accounts for 10% ‘it is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in global warming potential’.

74% of methane emissions in our atmosphere are produced by methanogens. The main sources are wetlands (22%), coal and oil mining and natural gas (19%), enteric fermentation (16%), rice cultivation (12%), biomass burning (8%), landfills (6%), and sewage treatment (6%). Our ability to understand and work with methanogens will play a crucial role in our future. A great deal of research has been carried out into the pros and cons of methanogenesis.

A study by Susannah G. Tringe et al. focuses on ‘a pilot-scale restored wetland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of California.’ Tringe notes that wetlands are effective carbon sinks, but methane production can outweigh the benefits in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases. By mapping the relationships between microbial communities and gas measurements her group aims to ‘reduce methane flux to the atmosphere and enhance belowground carbon storage.’

Several studies have been carried out on methanogenesis in coal mines. It has been discovered that the majority of emissions from mines are biogenic as opposed to thermogenic and take place by acetoclastic methanogensis from hard coal and mine timber. Ways of using the methane for energy are being explored. Methanogenesis also occurs in shale and experiments in biostimulation to improve productivity in combination with fracking are in progress.

Studies on landfills, a new source of organic (and inorganic) matter for these ingenuous microorganisms, show that methanogenesis, which follows hydrolysis, acidification, and acetogenesis, is an essential process in the breakdown of ‘municipal solid waste’. In landfills, as well as in wetlands, coal, and shale, acetoclastic methanogens work with acetate-producing bacteria in a syntrophic relationship. This also occurs in the breakdown of sewage. Again, ways of using the methane for energy and thus reducing emissions are being explored.

A common theme that cropped up in all these studies is that the complex interrelationships between methanogens and other bacteria and the role of methanogenesis in the global cycles are not fully understood. Nothing is said about the intelligence and agency of these secretive near-invisible beings who have played a key role in the shaping of our climate for billions of years.

Methanosarcina, Wikipedia

Science, measuring, quantifying, postulating, manipulating, rarely listens to or respects its subjects. The Permian-Triassic extinction, which took place as the consequence of a small genetic change, highlights the potential dangers of attempting to manipulate these complex microorganisms. Without understanding, without relationship, we are playing a dangerous game.

IV. Listening to the Deep

For me as an awenydd working with Brythonic cosmology, methanogens, chthonic beings who inhabit the deepest of places and feed on organic matter composed of dead organisms, seem associated with Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld, where the dead and dead worlds reside. Death-eaters par excellence, their activities release the gaseous spirits of the dead into the air.

These processes are essential on both physical and spiritual levels and are part of the earth’s innate balance. When this is disturbed, as now, by mankind’s raiding of Annwn for fossil fuels and release of its spirits, extinction events swiftly follow to correct the disequilibrium.

This knowledge from the depths of time is embodied in Brythonic mythology wherein Gwyn ap Nudd is said to contain the spirits of Annwn in order to prevent their destruction of the world.

Whereas we once mined with due reverence for the rules of the gods of the deep (Nodens/Nudd,‘Lord of the Mines’ was venerated at an iron ore mine at Lydney), who keep its spirits in check, their forgetting has led to all-out ravaging with disastrous consequences.

Over two thousands miners in Lancashire alone have lost their lives, many as a result of explosions caused by methane, which is also a threat at landfill sites. Flammable methane haunts the taps of people whose water has been contaminated by fracking. Global warming, caused by greenhouse gases, is claiming the lives of at least ten thousand species a year.

As the death toll rises I believe it is no coincidence that methanogens have begun to reveal themselves to us (as opposed to us thinking we are so clever finding them); coccoid, baccilic, in enigmatic strings and webs, under the UV illumination of fluorescence microscopes. These 3.5 billion year old microorganisms who dwell deep in our guts are clearly communicating.

Methanogen Microwiki

Will we learn their language? Will we listen? If we do will they lead us to redemption or destruction?

Gwyn ap Nudd,
you who have travelled time
to know the secrets of archaea:
their containment and release,

you who exist in the no-time
of Annwn between life and death
please teach us to listen
with reverence again

before you and your spirits
decide our end.

SOURCES

Carl Woese, ‘Archaebacteria: The Third Domain of Life Missed by Biologists for Decades’, Scientific American, (2012, originally published 1981)
Colin Schultz, ‘How a Single Act of Evolution Nearly Wiped Out All Life on Earth’, Smithsonian
Daniela Buckroithner, ‘Microbiology of Landfill Sites’, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Masters Thesis, (2015)
Fabrizio Colozimio et al.,‘Biogenic methane in shale gas and coal bed methane: A review of current knowledge and gaps’, International Journal of Coal Geology, Vol. 165, (2016)
James F. Kasting, ‘When Methane Made Climate,’ Scientific American, (2015)
Ralph S. Wolfe, ‘A Historical Overview of Methanogenesis’, Methanogenesis: Physiology, Biochemistry & Genetics, (Chapman and Hall, 1993)
Sabrina Beckman et al, ‘Acetogens and Acetoclastic Methanosarcinales Govern Methane Formation in Abandoned Coal Mines’, Applied and Environmental Biology, (2011)
Shaomei He et al., ‘Patterns in Wetland Microbial Community Composition and Functional Gene Repertoire Associated with Methane Emissions’, American Society for Microbiology, (2015)

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Potion

I need a potion
much stronger than the one
Alice saw the label ‘DRINK ME’ on.

I need to shrink much smaller than ten inches
because we don’t use inches anymore.

I need to shrink into micrometres
to speak with the microbes
who came to life 3.5
billion years ago

because they have all the secrets
you scan the Petri dishes for.

I have nothing to trade but desperation,
the lines on my palm as we make this handshake.

We both have the feeling of predestiny
when our thumb-whorls
brush like lipids.

I do not mind the acidic taste.
I have been drinking from test tubes for a while.

Hermes Trismegistus, Albertus Magnus, Nicholas Flamel,
do not have the answers for this day and age,

but it’s possible these strands of RNA,
like Rapunzel’s hair,
might lead to something,
unspiral my being
down those plaited ladders to where
spheres, rods, spirals, plates, writhe like snakes.

I don’t know if we will meet again
or whether you will recognise me so small

(I assume this potion, like the rest, is non-reversible?).

If you live to see your grandchildren grow up
assume I have been successful

(if not some part of us will meet again
in this earth’s chemistry eternal).

Let us make a toast to

methanosarcina bakeri
methanobrevibacter smithii
methanoculleus marisnigri
methanococcus maripaludis
methanosarcina acetivorans

You grow large as I spiral small.

PotionIV

Exploiting Chaos

My article, ‘Exploiting Chaos’, which provides an awenydd’s perspective on our exploitation of the chaotic spirits of gas and its consequences has been published on Gods & Radicals.

GODS & RADICALS

“I picture an awenydd seated beside a gas flare prophesying chaos…”

From Lorna Smithers

arnau-soler-472212-unsplash.copy

Gas’ – ‘invented by J. B. van Helmont (1577–1644), Belgian chemist, to denote an occult principle which he believed to exist in all matter; suggested by Greek khaos ‘chaos’, with Dutch g representing Greek kh.’
Oxford English Dictionary

Chaomancy exhibits its signs by the stars of the air and the wind… Necromicae fall down from the upper air, and frequently voices and answers are heard. Trees are plucked up from the earth by their roots, and houses thrown down. Lemurs, Penates, Undines, and Sylvans are seen.’
Paracelsus

I. Gas Flare

It’s 1999. I’m the designated driver. On summer nights we park up at a landfill site, light up with snazzy Zippos, inhale, sit back, drift away to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. Through the steamy windscreen I glimpse a flame, a lonely solitary…

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Modern Monasticism: a revolutionary vision

I strongly relate to this…

Call of the Syren

Modern Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism: a revolutionary vision

There are a growing number of people interested in a polytheistic monastic lifestyle, or at least growing awareness of it as a possibility. Many of these modern-day monastics lead a life in which devotion is present in every daily activity, service to others is considered service to the divine, and hours are spent in study, devotion, and contemplation rather than excessive socializing or other external activities.

I consider myself among those interested in creating this way of life and working toward building awareness and acceptance of it within western polytheism and modern culture. This lifestyle is a powerful resistance to American society; indeed, it goes against almost everything this culture values. I see four main areas of resistance in which a monastic lifestyle serves:

Resistance to the exploitation of time and labor
Our time is one of the most precious gifts that…

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“You Can’t Go Straight To Annwn”

I’m gifted the Annuvian Awen. The next step on my path looks clear. Our lack of lore about the Brythonic Otherworld – place-names, god-names, records of wonders and terrors, maps, has long saddened my heart. Unlike other traditions we have no cosmology, no Book of the Dead. It’s my task to map Annwn, return with its cartography like an odyssean heroine!

Of course it’s not that simple. They don’t tell you that in beginner’s books on shamanism, in classes, on courses, which teach that you just need to find a tree or a hole to go through and an animal guide, to remember the way you came and follow it back and you’ll be perfectly safe.

That’s just a little white lie to get you started. Like when a parent tells their child they’ll make it through school, college, uni, into a bright shiny career, when what really happens is you get undone, torn apart, every one of your dreams gets shot down like a butterfly (and those are the lucky one who learnt to fly before they were strangled in their chrysalises) before you really get somewhere, see something that makes you tremble with awe, turns the universe inside out.

If those teachers told the truth rather than promising healing and shiny-browed wisdom who would sign up?

***

Leaning Yew February 2018

I set out for Annwn, down the yew root, past the cavern where the water-dragon no longer is, end up…

Knee deep in a swamp gazing up at huge scaly trees, gigantic ferns, horsetails. I’m swept off my feet by a dragonfly to be shown this great forest falling, decaying, sinking, becoming coal.

Then by some metaphoric shift I’m in a helicopter as the pilot weeps whilst he sprays toxins over a withering jungle then plunges down to his death in the hell he’s created.

On another day I’m splashing through the shallows with the bi-valves who will become the shale we’re planning to frack and on another in the molten heart of folding mountains in the midst of the origenies pushing forth veins of copper, silver, gold, to the beat of Gofannon’s hammer as he summons into being the materials that he and our smiths will forge for good and ill.

***

“Why am I stuck in the past?” I demand of Gwyn, Lord of Annwn, my forever patron.

We are standing beside a pool of sleeping butterflies which would seem a strange location for such a terrible Annuvian god if I did not know who and what they were.

He smiles that half smile. “You can’t go straight to Annwn.”

His words make sudden sense like falling meteors.

It’s already written in the lore that there are no straight paths that stay the same after being walked. Try to get to the fortress on the hilltop straight away and it will get more distant the harder you ride. On the road that is not a road but a stumble and a fall there are many deaths and even the dead do not have straight journey for the route through death is just as complex as life.

I return his half-smile with a full smile.

A butterfly stirs.

Butterfly

I.
You show me the ruins of a city
where a billion bodies slumber.

The ricochet of gun shots goes on and on
like a stuck and broken recording in a picture hall.

A butterfly crawls from the mouth of a dead man –
darting antennae then hesitant legs,
unfolds its wings,
deepest red
with astonishingly dark eyes

startling away to join your cloak of butterflies.

When surrounded by their colours you almost look like Summer
yet I hear the fateful beating of their wings,
the approaching storm

as I close a dead man’s mouth
and clamp my hand over mine.

II.
I’ve been recording sightings
of butterflies crawling from the mouths
of dead men for quite some time.

It seems to happen once or twice in every war –
something escapes into winged kaleidoscopic beauty.

I’ve tried to pin them down and question them
but they fly away to a place beyond
my interrogations.

They won’t say what they are or who you are.

We’re running out of time to answer these ancient questions.

III.
I used to keep a log of butterflies seen in fields and meadows:
orange tips, tortoiseshells, meadow browns,
speckled woods, marble whites…

I’ve seen their decline and more and more
crawling from the mouths
of the dead:

tiger swallowtails, Niobe fritillaries, Illioneus giant owls…

sometimes shifting into other vaster creatures
before joining your processions
in the night air.

IV.
When the butterflies fly away
and I see the bare bones of your constellation
I want to scream but fear something might escape.

Finally I realise I have a soul and it belongs to you.

red-admiral-butterfly-1448108694roW-shutterstock

The Defwy – A Brythonic River of the Dead

In the sixth verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of the answers to riddles which in his day must have been well known. He says they do not know ‘who made the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’.

The meadows of Defwy are clearly in Annwn. Marged Haycock notes it has been suggested Defwy is a river-name from def-/dyf- ‘black’ ‘as in Dyfi’ and may be ‘a river between this world and the next’. Taliesin also sings of this river in a list of fine things in ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’: ‘Fine it is on the banks of the Dyfwy / when the waters flow’.

Rivers dividing Thisworld and the Otherworld, the realms of the living and the dead, are found in many world cultures. In Greek mythology the Styx ‘Hatred’ divides Thisworld and Hades, the dead must cross the Acheron ‘Woe’ to reach their destination, and surrender their memories to the Lethe ‘forgetfulness’ to be reborn. There are another two rivers: Cocytus ‘Lamentation’ and Phlegyton ‘fire’. All originate from Oceanus ‘Ocean’. Each is a deity. Each flows through both worlds: the Styx is a stream in Arcadia, the Acheron and Cocytus flow through Thesprotia, the Lethe through Boetia, and the Phlegethon near to Avernus.

In Norse mythology eleven rivers called Elvigar ‘Ice Waves’ arise from Hvergelmir ‘Boiling Bubbling Spring’ in Niflheim ‘Mist-World’. Amongst them is Gjǫll, which flows past Hel’s Gate and separates the living from the dead. There are forty-two rivers in total. Some flow into the ‘fields of the gods’. Others ‘go among men’ before falling into Hel. Midgard, Thisworld, is encircled by an impassable ocean where Jörmungandr, the world-serpent, lives.

Unfortunately in Brythonic tradition we possess far less lore about the cartography of Annwn. Whether it was simply lost or actively erased by Christian scribes is impossible to know. Much of what we have is obscured by Taliesin’s riddling. In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ he speaks of:

‘the connected river which flows (around the world)
I know its might,
I know how it ebbs,
I know how it flows,
I know how it courses,
I know how it retreats.
I know how many creatures
are under the sea’

It seems the Britons shared with the Greeks and the Norse a concept of a river/ocean encircling the world. To me this speaks of an intuitive knowledge of the oceanic currents of our ‘global conveyor belt’ which flow through the world’s oceans maintaining its ecosystems.

Another riddle suggests we once possessed knowledge of many rivers thisworldly and otherworldy:

‘how many winds, how many waters,
how many waters, how many winds,
how many coursing rivers,
how many rivers they are’

It’s my intuition that, like the Greek and Norse rivers, the rivers of Annwn flow through Thisworld and the Otherworld too. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn, a ruler of Annwn and gatherer of souls, says he is:

‘Hurrying to battles in Tawe and Nedd.

Not the Tawe here in this land
But the one far away in a distant land
Where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore.’

The Tawe is a river in Thisworld that flows through ‘a distant land’ – Annwn – too. It seems likely the Defwy, which might be identified with the Dyfi, appears in both worlds.

Afon_Dyfi_-_geograph.org.uk_-_242012
Afon Dyfi – the Defwy here in this land?

It is notable that Gwyn speaks to Gwyddno of his ‘sorrow’ at seeing ‘battle at Caer Vandwy’, ‘Shields shattered, spears broken / Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair’. Caer Vandwy ‘The Fortress of God’s Peak’ is mentioned in the same verse as ‘the meadows of Defwy’ with the legendary Ych Brych ‘Brindled Ox’.

Gwyn is speaking of a devastating battle between his people ‘the honoured and fair’ (the dead) and Arthur and his men who Taliesin accompanied on their raid on Annwn to plunder its spoils, which included the Brindled Ox and cauldron of Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’ (Gwyn).

Even the impervious Taliesin describes this part of the raid of a ‘sad journey’ and says ‘save seven none returned from Caer Vandwy’. Arthur set out with ‘three loads full of Prydwen’ (his ship).

It seems Gwyn is sorrowful because the dead, who should be free of sorrow, were forced to fight and die again and he had again to gather their souls – a task he performs at battles in both worlds.

On a journey to the Defwy with Gwyn I saw people approaching the river, some to kneel and pray, some to cry, some to pour into it great jugs of tears. He told me that the Defwy is the place where the dead discard their sorrowful memories so they can move on to the lands of joy.

He also said the living can come here to do the same, but discarding one’s sorrows is a dangerous process, a form of death, and that they can never be regained because they flow away into the ocean to be reborn in new shapes walking abroad in forms unrecognisable to us.

In ‘The Hostile Confederacy’ Taliesin says in Annwn ‘There is one that knows / what sadness is / better than joy’. I believe this is Gwyn, who knows too well the sorrow of the dead who leave their memories at the Defwy in order to travel onward into his joyful realm.

Taliesin is, of course, ‘the one who didn’t go to the meadows of Defwy’, the one who continues to evade death, who claims to know all, remember all, yet in spite of this feels little sorrow, little guilt, for the catastrophes that he has witnessed and played a role in.

Knowing neither sorrow nor death will this mysterious glib-tongued entity, who was created by the magician-gods from fruit, blossoms and flowers, earth and water, ever truly know life or joy?