Journal entry from the countryside: Take a closer look under the layers of leaves, nature is bustling with activity | Written by Phil Gates
It is two o’clock in the afternoon of a chilly December day, and the sun is already descending towards the west, casting lengthy shadows across Flatts Wood. In the distance, a blackbird perches on the footpath and begins clearing away dead leaves, with the annoyed demeanor of a gardener who has discovered litter on their lawn. During the brief winter days, these birds expend a great deal of effort digging through layers of decaying leaves in search of hidden food. With its head tilted to one side, the bird appears to be listening or sensing something concealed in its surroundings, and pays no attention to us until we are just a few steps away.
As he takes flight, we observe more closely: what resides beneath the discarded leaves from last summer? Underneath the scattered, dried leaves lies years worth of accumulated decaying foliage; a layered “lasagna” held together by intricate fungal threads that are expanding from a spreading network of pure white mycelium, creeping out from under a fallen tree branch. For every mushroom that sprouts above ground, there are countless miles of these thin hyphae, breaking down dead vegetation until they have enough energy to form another fungal fruiting body.
In the hollow created by the blackbird, we discover worms, but not the type that the bird was seeking. As we peel away layers of decaying leaves, we come across small white specks. These are nematodes, also known as eelworms, which quickly uncoil and slither across the damp ground when exposed to sunlight. There are likely hundreds of them in every handful of leaf litter. The biggest ones, when fully stretched out, are less than a centimeter in length and barely thicker than a strand of human hair.
Together, nematodes are the most abundant creatures on our planet and play a crucial role in recycling nutrients in woodland ecosystems. As the winter darkness sets in, the forest may appear devoid of life, but beneath the surface, billions of these tiny organisms are hard at work. Their long, tube-like bodies are see-through, allowing us to observe small clusters of partially digested food moving through their digestive systems when viewed under a magnifying lens.
Together with fungi, these common creatures are converting the debris of fall into crumbly soil, bit by bit through tiny bites.