Lungs of the Earth

Take a deep breath. Observe the oxygen filling your lungs. Feel how it feeds your entire body, how the oxygen is being delivered to every cell. Now exhale. The process you just underwent is called respiration, where the oxygen you inhale is being processed to create energy for your body to use. The chemical equation of respiration is this:

oxygen + glucose —-> water + carbon dioxide

What is happening here is that we breathe in oxygen molecules, which combine with glucose in our cells, to produce energy, as we exhale a mixture of water vapor and carbon dioxide.

This vital process is the link all living organisms have to life, to sustaining and regulating our entire bodies system. Our bodies can be seen as mobile reflections of our planet. Like us, our planet also has organs that serve the wellbeing of the system. The oceans, the deserts, the forests, the mountains – they are all organs, functioning in the greater body of the planet.

I had the gift of trekking through the lungs of the earth and seeing first hand the staggering complicity of how it functions. “The lungs of the earth” is an iconic phrase commonly associated with rainforests. But do we all truly understand the truth behind it? Yes, the trees take in carbon and release oxygen, but the process is extensively more magical then it appears to be and involves various overlooked parts.

Below is a diagram of how the forest breathes:


What is happening here is that the leaves of the trees are absorbing the sun’s rays though a fundamental process called photosynthesis, where the chlorophyl in the plant uses sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugar for the plant and then releases oxygen.

This is the chemical equation for photosynthesis:

carbon dioxide + water —–> glucose + oxygen

Does it look familiar? This equation is actually respiration’s chemical process backward! Instead of absorbing oxygen, carbon-dioxide is taken in, used for energy, and released as oxygen. It is unfathomable how symbiotic and divinely precise nature works her craft.

The next process is that the leaves fall and become a part of the decomposing party on the forest floor called the humus layer, where fungi and bacteria break down the forest’s organic matter and rapidly turn it into rich mulch. The humus layer releases carbon dioxide and respires because of its high concentration of bacteria, fungi, microbes, and all the living things that aid the process. The forest floor is breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide, and the trees are breathing in (or photosynthesizing) carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen, creating a constant cycle moving back and forth between the forest floor and the canopy.

Respiration and photosynthesis are reciprocal actions; they partner with one another to create the harmony of breath within nature itself. But, if one of them is thrown off balance, the whole system is in danger of collapsing. For example, right now there is an excessive amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere due to the continuous burning of fossil fuels and unmitigated practice of unsustainable agriculture, and there is not enough absorption of carbon dioxide due to extreme deforestation worldwide. In short, we are altering the way our planet’s lungs work. Simply like the lungs of a smoker, our rainforests are slowly collapsing and the earth is losing its ability to function because of reckless actions we are making with shortsighted vision.


Photographed by Roxana McDonald

It is critical that, as a society, we begin to recognize and perceive our planet as one system; that we begin to see how interconnected all aspects of life are, especially in terms of our physical environments. The oceans regulate the temperature, the sky transports our water, and the trade winds carry the air from the forest all across the globe. Everything is affected by one another, and once the parts of the system begin to collapse our ecosystems will struggle to maintain balance.

Written by Gabrielle Royo-Fay

One thought on “Lungs of the Earth

  1. Nonette Royo says:

    This is an amazing yet simple illustration of our interconnectedness, using respiration and photosynthesis. we breath and encounter plants everyday. we dont think about it. it is what we assume is always just going to be there. so we forget, how important this balance lies in our hands….if it were only up to the plants and non human beings in this planet, it would have been fine…yet it would not have been as much an evocation of humanity’s deepest stirrings, of the desires of the soul. but why are we blind, to what is happening because of our excesses?…how much energy and food, and gold would each of us really need to be truly happy?


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