Curiosity is at the heart of scientific thinking, and provocative essential questions fuel inquisitiveness–questions like: “If every tree in the forest drops every one of its leaves every year, why aren’t we buried up to our neck in millions upon millions of leaves?” For regional 5th graders coming to Merck Forest for multi-day field experiences, this leaf question marks the beginning of a journey. Students contemplate this question as they look up at the shady green canopy overhead. To find the answer, they tear into the leaf litter and rotting logs at their feet.
Squeals of delight and discovery punctuate the air as students scamper like squirrels through the forest, digging into the decomposing leaf litter, peeling layers of lacey leaves apart, scooping up eastern red backed salamanders hiding under rocks, discovering quarter-sized white larva under birch bark, and plucking at strands of mycelium that weave their way through trunks of decaying birch tree. They dig in and get dirty. They inhale the rich, earthy scent of the detritus, the result of the microbial activity of bacteria and fungi–the powerhouses behind forest decomposition.
Without these powerhouses, we would indeed be “up to our necks” in leaf litter. These organisms break down living matter and release their nutrients, enabling new organisms to flourish and grow. Tender young plants and saplings send forth roots, their root hairs drawing up water and nutrients released into the soil by decaying plants and animals. The dead and decaying nourish the living.
In the spring, a new group of students will come to explore our forest. The squeals of delight will once again ring in the woods as they discover a red eft amongst the bright green moss or a spider weaving its web. They’ll feel the wet sponginess of rotting wood and marvel at a massive fungus growing on a log. Students will contemplate the multitude of ferns as they consider the resources available to the plants. Another set of young minds will experience a spark of curiosity, joy, and a sense of responsibility.