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The Forest Floor and All That Rot

Roger Caras once said, “If you have walked quietly in one forest, you have walked in all forests that have ever been.”

In Minnesota, the forests are often called “woods” or the “North woods,” which would lead one to believe that there is nothing here but a thicket of trees. In truth, a whole other world exists in the forest - from the majestic pine that lifts its branches to the sky to the gossamer threads of a tiny spider hung in the grasses below.

The forest is a wild land of maple, oak, pine, cedar, spruce, birch, balsam and aspen. Here moose dunk their heads for water lily roots in the beaver ponds; bears eat themselves fat on sweet berries; and wolves keep deer strong, fast and alert.

A walk in the forest

In the Fall, after the vivid colors are gone and before the winter snow, it’s a good time for hiking. Days are crisp and you can see farther into the forest because the leaves have dropped. Summer visitors have all gone home, so you can have entire forests to yourself. As you walk along, you’ll notice that there are many designs in the woods - "round, square, or triangular... stems, mushrooms, parachutes, screws, propellers" (Les Blacklock), stickers, burrs, stumps. Welcome to the forest floor, the world of rot! A Lilliputian world of lichens, mosses and fungus.

And what is rot? According to Caras, the chemistry of a forest is a complex mix of elements, compounds, and time. Organic matter is produced so that more organic matter of different kinds may flourish. To the forest a tree is a stage, a platform, a means of holding critical chemicals in storage and of converting others. No tree lives forever, and all chemicals return to the original mash that means continuing life in the forest.

Fungi, those relatively primitive forms of life that include the mushrooms, can either live free or combine in relationships with algae. For more than 350 million years, fungi have lived in a myriad of relationships, and one of the strangest is the form we call the lichen. Lichen

Lichens are among the least dramatic and most important life-forms on earth. They are the only species that can grow on otherwise barren rocks and are, in fact, one of the principal means by which rocks are decayed and turned into soil. These life-forms use trees as a platform and feed on the bark. The bark, in turn, feeds the roots of the host tree and all other life in the forest. It is, as Roger Caras suggests, “the utter perfection of the natural order.”

Mycelium, for instance, is fungus material in the form of elongated tubular cells designed to invade and break down rock, wood, and bark and turn them into food. The rate at which some fungus species produce these cells, says Caras, is astounding. These irresistible penetrating seekers of food may grow as rapidly as 1/8,000 of an inch per minute. Once a fungus member has colonized the bark of a large tree, its tubes begin their spreading invasion. Soon a network has formed within which motes of algae are enmeshed. Norway Pine blown down by the wind

But fungus is art as well! Just stand still and see all the different colors and shapes around you. And what about that dead tree lost in last night’s storm? Look again. That great trunk is still full of life. Man invented death. Nature knows only continuing life, passing from form to form, forever. That handsome log will be that - a handsome log for many years. And it will continue to serve the forest in many ways.

When the tree fell, the upturned roots exposed yards of mineral soil. Grouse will soon discover this fine source of grit. They and smaller birds will take dust baths here. The thick trunk is hollow near the base, as are some of the branches. A bear might winter in the trunk; raccoons, chipmunks and other mammals may den in the branches. Mushroom and clovers

Insects will start at once to break down the wood into soil. They’ll work on the inside while mosses, lichens and fungi will start the transition process from the outside. Before long, the entire log will be a lovely green velvet moss garden, enhanced by colorful lichens and toadstools. Still surging with life, the log will enrich growth here for decades.

But what kind of growth? When we see a rotting Birch tree on the ground or a tall Norway Pine toppled by the wind, we may think, “It’s going to be replaced by another one.” Maybe not. We are inclined to think of nature as continually renewing itself, repeating cycles, replacing the dead and dying with young of the same kind. And this is the way it may happen over a short period of time. But our lives are so short, and our view of a forest so limited, that we miss the great changes that take place in nature over a long period of time. Rotting log nurturing new life

The Birch tree probably will not be replaced by another Birch, and the Norway Pine will probably not be replaced by another Norway. And over time the stand of tall Pines that we thought would always be there if we just left it alone will instead be replaced by another type of forest or perhaps no forest at all.

But will the forest stay the same if we leave it alone? Probably not. Nature itself changes the forest. It just changes more slowly than if we humans got in there. Not that nature doesn’t occasionally make some drastic changes too. A forest fire started by lightning can change a landscape forever. On a larger scale, for example, the prevailing theory is that a large meteor crashing into the earth millions of years ago clouded the atmosphere enough to wipe out the dinosaurs. They will never return.

Yet for the most part, changes in nature, or evolution, takes place slowly. Humans can invade a forest and wipe out a species in as little as a few months. Nature generally takes her time. Plant and animal species come and go, but usually they have time to adapt to another environment or into another species.

This afternoon I paused in my walk to pick up a maple leaf that had fallen to the ground. A maple leaf in this part of the woods is a very common thing, for each of the trees in this grove has tens of thousands - and none unlike the others. And yet each single leaf should be an object of reverence, for each and every leaf resembles the tree upon which it grows. The stem of each leaf is a facsimile of the trunk of the tree, and stretching outward from the stem are dozens of fibrous veins that are patterned after the branches, growing smaller and finer as they reach the edge of the leaf. And if you hold any one of them toward the brightness of the sun, the leaf becomes the tree even as the seed becomes the leaf.

In the October wind half of the plant world seems to be flying off, and the other half has either already flown or is busy assembling its gear. The forest is full of seeds and spores, all of them being hurled away. The leaves will go too, and soon. First the birds disappear, then the seeds, then the leaves; by November we will be left with a world stripped, uncolored, and unmuscled. It is as though we were hoisting ourselves, and these woods, into the cold and dark between the moon and Mars. Hepaticas

But wait, it is still in Autumn, the last and richest months of Summer, that most live things move through wild transformations in a roundish form, streamlined against the here and now. The woods are warmed with bright, unhurried color. Ferns are a yellowing green, maple branch ends are slabbed with corals and pinks, and in the open spots there are clumps of purple hepaticas. Frogs and toads are on the move to find the perfect burrow.

The time clock is running, the temperature gauges are measuring the cold. A seed’s defenses are complex, cautious, this time of year, perhaps because a newborn tree is both immobile and defenseless.

Yet in April the dials will click, the sensory scoops nod their approval; warmth, oxygen, water, light; all systems go. The embryo wakes, a root pops through casings, seed leaves unfurl in a patch of light. Takeoff, flight, touchdown: a new tree steps into the air. Marsh Marigolds

And, as Les Blacklock once said, "Is there a more cheerful bouquet on the forest floor than marsh marigolds? Whether the day is bluebird weather or stormy, marigolds glow as brightly. Large wetlands can contain acres of marsh marigolds, but even wholesale abundance can’t diminish the specialness of these fresh beauties because they will all be gone soon, until next spring."

But for now the lichen land and begin to establish new carpets on dead trees, where new populations of insects will feed, to be fed on, in turn, by other insects and arachnids, this while nitrogen is being drawn from the air and carried to the soil. As Caras says, the relationships of these elements remain largely mysteries - as each new apparent rule is recognized, new exceptions seem to appear. Yet we can say that this incredible complexity of life on a single tree is a universe in miniature.

Source of oxygen, air purifier, provider of food and cover, home for wildlife, soil builder, a beautiful part of the natural world - the tree is an exemplary citizen.

When walking through the forest, the world is a better place because the tree is here.

And the rot.


Further Reading:

Blacklock, Les. Meet My Psychiatrist. Voyageur Press (Bloomington, MN, 1977).

Caras, Roger. The Forest. Holt, Rinehart and Winston (New York, 1979).


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Copyright ©1997 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

schiller@emily.net

October 23, 1997