Unsung heroes of life: the organisms of decay

blue green life death

Maybe I’m just morbid, but to me there is a kind of beauty in the equation of life and death, with decomposition, rot, and decay as essential counterpoint to birth, life, order, and creativity.

The organizing principle we call life necessarily includes the disorganizing, uncreating principle made possible by the fungi and bacteria, so when I see visible evidence of this in something like the above ground parts of the fungus would call a mushroom, or here in this dark tissue of decay that made its home in the living cambium of the former tree, I see a kind of art.

And to see the blue of death and the green of life so closely juxtaposed while on my knees in the spring forest that is my is home, is both celebration and memorial.  click to enlarge

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. What I think is interesting is how this cycle of life us achieved while everything at every step thinks it’s clearly getting ahead. It’s like one of those optical illusion drawings of a staircase where every stuep is up, but there is no beginning or end. The tree is clearly getting ahead, taking it’s place in the forest and passing it’s genes along to it’s progeny. It’s leaves fall, and eventually the tree itself falls to the forest floor where a variety of bacteria, bugs, and critters consume the tree’s remains all the while convinced they too are getting ahead, replicating, and pursuing life. Some of this matter shows up in the bodies of mammals and birds who add their own excrements and eventually their own bodies to the concoction of the forest floor. Certainly they pursue life when they have it. The forest floor is home to trees mostly who depend on all this other life to recycle nutrients for their turn in the cycle. Nobody loses. Everyone gets ahead. If there ever was an example of perpetual motion, this is it–right before our eyes.

  2. Perpetual motion: what a great concept to apply to this phenomenom in your photo. I have never seen this in the forest. I hope I do some day.