As an ecosystem ecologist, I study how the cycle of life and death influences forest structure and changes over time. A walk in the woods might illuminate the forest’s dynamism as you observe squirrels tending to their buried acorn caches and listen to woodpeckers feasting on grubs. In contrast, the plant community may appear more static to the average aspiring Thoreau. However, as you traverse the forest floor, the cycle of life and death is working on overdrive right beneath your feet.
As soon as a leaf drops to the forest floor in autumn, soil microbes immediately begin dining on that leaf. The carbon and nutrients within the dead leaf – elements which only a month earlier fueled photosynthesis and plant growth – are now used on the forest floor to fuel microbial growth. Eventually, as the microbes process these nutrients, eating what they can and spitting out what they can’t, the nutrients that originated from the dead leaf will be taken up by plant roots to build new leaves, and the cycle of life will continue.