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Decomposing and rebuilding

Submitted Photo Even the largest trees rely on tiny decomposers to provide them with nutrients to grow.

By CHELSEA JANDREAU

At the junction of summer and fall, there is a month or so when the mucky fields of skunk cabbage that flourished and made the wetland floors verdant and lush seem to disappear entirely.

However, if you look closely, you will begin to notice tiny purple-striped sprouts where those leafy greens once stood. Each year the skunk cabbage will die back, but they do not just evaporate into thin air. Like many plants, they will decompose and create fertile soil for the next generation to grow in.

It is a phrase heard in many contexts. You sometimes have to break something down in order to build it up again. But nature is not building anything up from scratch. It is recycling and reusing the energy and nutrients already present in the system. Instead of creating everything anew, it uses what already exists, maybe changing its function or its purpose along the way, but still relying on the existing matter and energy in the ecosystem.

It seems strange to think about things breaking down in the spring when everything is growing and bursting with life, but it is only because of this process of nutrient recycling that living things can get the energy and resources they need to show off the growth and colors of spring and summer. This process is also at the forefront of my brain, because as it continues to warm up and it rains, I am starting to see worms in greater numbers.

One of the most direct examples of the “break it down to build it back” philosophy is a category of organisms known as decomposers. Worms are a prominent member of this group. Decomposers are the fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates that break down dead plants and animals and turn those discarded parts into soil, water, or air.

Many invertebrate decomposers have an easier time in the warmer weather, but fungus and bacteria are at work all year long. In fact, fungus is far better at breaking down the tough, woody cellulose of tree cells than any other decomposer, which is why you often see the larger shelf mushrooms attached to large trees. When warmer weather rolls around, the worms, millipedes, slugs and other insects and invertebrates resume their hard work of munching through leaves, sticks, and dead animals and making sure our forest floors are not buried in five feet of dead stuff. They work in tangent with the fungus and bacteria to break it down even further, giving our growing plants the nutrients to sustain themselves and by extension, everything else living on the planet.

Worms, in particular are some of the most well-known decomposers. They are large enough to see wiggling around on the ground, or even on the sidewalk on a rainy day, and many of us were either grossed out or excited by these slimy wigglers as children. They can eat and break down an impressive amount of organic matter, which is why certain species are so often used in either home or community composting bins. In the right conditions, worms will ingest decaying plants and decomposing dead animals, physically breaking it down into the organic matter found in soil. From here, bacteria and fungi have the opportunity to further decompose this into organic matter rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. These are vital nutrients for new plant growth.

Decomposition and the recycling of matter is often presented as something that happens to other plants and animals out in nature, but humans do not exist outside of this system of matter and nutrient movement and repurposing. Have you ever heard the statement, “We are all made of star stuff?” Many of the essential elements that make up both the human body and much of our surrounding world were originally formed in stars. We are interwoven with the natural world on a molecular level. The air we breathe cycles through a plant as the trees and leaves turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars for them and oxygen for humans, animals and other organisms that need it to survive. The elements that cycle through the ecosystem are not destroyed and instead chemical bonds are broken and reformed into new molecules to be used again and again by another piece of the puzzle, whether this is through decomposition or the processes that keep us alive.

Though this can be a far more complex process than I am portraying here, we are literally part of any given ecosystem’s recycling program, and it is a humbling reminder as we move through our daily lives that the energy and matter that we use and put out, whether that is intentional or it is due to just existing, will not disappear. It will either decompose or break down to be turned into something new and useful, or it will continue to remain in its original form.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk but Liberty, the Bald Eagle is currently off display during the construction of the Pamela A. Westrom Wildlife Habitat. You can visit her on her Facebook page. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling 569-2345.

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