As I walk to my car in the May sunlight, the blacktop is broken by patches of yellow as bright as tempera paint. The wind brings down a shower of tiny particles, landing on the golden dust already covering the cars. My eyes water.
Pollen season is here, and the pine trees are releasing clouds of what for them is the life-giving essence of the next generation. But for many of us, it is the heralding of allergy season. While white pine is not the cause of most of the allergies I experience, it reminds me of both the overwhelming productivity of plant reproduction and the cumulative impacts of sharing our testimony with others.
It’s easy to appreciate other plant parts, such as seeds and flowers. They’re common metaphors for new life and even represent the gospel in the biblical parable of the sower (Matt. 13). Mustard seeds represent the power of faith, the tiniest seed the ancient world could imagine. Likewise, flowers are more obvious, showy, easily appreciated as part of art and culture. In fact, the Jesus uses them as an illustration, saying, that we are to “see how the flowers of the field grow.” Although flowers do no work, we are told that “not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Matt. 6:28–29). Pollen, on the other hand, is harder to get behind.
Today, however, we can see small objects magnified. If we were to collect some pollen of the white pines and observe it under a microscope, we might be astonished by the beauty and complexity of these minute forms. As perfect as tiny organisms, as complex as mineral sculptures that develop over millennia in hidden caves, pollen is an underappreciated creation that brings new seeds into the world.
What looked to ancients like dust are the male reproductive effort of plants that make seeds.
Pine trees have two types of cones. Male cones release the pollen, and female cones produce eggs and house the developing seeds in the structure most of us think of when we say “pine cone.” The much smaller male cones dump their yellow dust during a few weeks a year. Then, female cones will grow on the tree for two years in order to produce and release the tens of thousands of small seeds with their fluttering paper wings that will germinate into the next generation of pine seedlings.
Relying on wind, plants like pine, corn, and ragweed lose many pollen grains and have to produce many times the amount of pollen than they would otherwise need. For wind-pollinated plants, the only option is to grow close together and produce clouds of the stuff, in the hopes that some of this precious DNA will get to the right place.
Pollen grains have to be numerous and light. Pine trees may make two to five pounds of pollen in a season. On my May walk, I see it lying on a puddle as thick as yellow paint and floating as a light haze across a pond surface nearby.
This may seem like a waste, but over-generous production is a part of the natural world. Even with seeds, we see that many more are produced than survive. Jesus demonstrates knowledge of this concept in the Parable of the Sower: Not all presentations of good news will result in spiritual fruit, but some will. Like pollen, perhaps our witness includes seemingly tiny fragments: moments of patience and care. Small but numerous, our words, acts of love, and moments of genuine listening collectively make an impact.
The amount of pollen necessary for the plants of the world to survive is staggering. Each kernel of corn, each tiny bubble of a raspberry, each seed of a strawberry, and each seed in a cucumber or tomato represents a separate fertilization event from a different pollen grain and egg. Then there are the vast majority of pollen grains that never make it to an egg. As an analogy, the seeming wastefulness in plant reproduction could seem discouraging. And yet pollen grains remind us that our faith does not exist in the whim of one season—the wind discarding puffs of pollen in a bout of allergies—but over generations and millennia in a historical and global Christianity.
The hard cases and the shapes pollen hold become a part of regional history and can be used to answer questions beyond the scope of agrarian concepts. For example, in one case, a child who had died was identified in part by the mixture of pollen grains found on her clothing. In another, pollen grains on counterfeit malaria medicine packages were traced to their origin in China, where authorities were able to catch a criminal gang.
Pollen, then, is a testimony. Each grain speaks to the conditions of the world and the availability of the plants around it. These testimonies are not quickly erased. Not all of the pollen we see will become part of seeds, but it nonetheless results in an ongoing legacy of information that paints a picture of the world, just as our words and deeds point to Christ.
Dorothy Boorse is professor of biology at Gordon College in Massachusetts. She studies wetland ecology, invertebrates, and invasive species and is also passionate about connecting science and faith communities and supporting science literacy.