Going Underground The world beneath our feet
The slow decay
The slow decay
As the winds begin to whisper of the coming winter, a beautiful red leaf is blown from the comfort of its branches, and lies discarded at the foot of the tree that nurtured it. It might appear to be waste, trodden on and forgotten, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Even dead, the leaf is part of nature's bounty, and as it is gradually absorbed back into the soil, it will meet a host of other creatures for whom the light of day remains a rare, and sometimes unattainable, part of life.
It all begins with fungi. These unsung heroes of the natural world are everywhere, and play an integral role in the process of breaking down plant matter. The Crucibulum laeve, also known as "bird's nest fungi", is one such species, and a masterpiece of biological engineering.
When a raindrop falls into the nest-like cup, the seeds inside are propelled upwards and the thin cord by which they are tethered, is broken.
For one tiny seed, the short flight ends and on the back of a beautiful red leaf that lies trampled beneath the towering tree from which it fell. The young fungus attaches itself to its new host.
Once settled, the Crucibulum laeve releases enzymes that eat into the substance of the leaf, rendering it mere fragments of its former self - each one small enough to be drawn down into the soil, from where their respective onward journeys will take many different forms, depending on who or what they meet next.
Mole or vole?
Mole or vole?
A larger part of the leaf is carried underground in the jaws of a small grey-brown rodent that is foraging in the undergrowth when it senses the stealthy approach of a predator.
The young vole quickly snatches a piece of red leaf at its feet and scurries to the safety of its burrow just 24 centimeters beneath ground.
Although it runs fast, almost reaching its six miles an hour potential, it is not quick enough to lose the fox, which pads about overhead and pokes its nose into the burrow.
Having made it to the age of 40 days - an achievement for a species in which 90 percent die in the first week – and determined to reach its full lifespan of six months, the vole, little heart pounding, rushes deeper into the network of tunnels dug by its 300-strong colony. It has escaped the fox.
As for the piece of red leaf, it falls by the wayside, and is again left to an undetermined fate.
And that fate comes quickly. The piece of leaf is pushed deeper into the darkness on the nose of a velvety brown creature clawing through the soil.
Common in many countries in the world, moles spend the majority of their three years on earth, beneath it - tunneling to depths of 40 centimeters. As such, few people ever actually set eyes on one. What they do see though, are the great mounds of dirt they leave piled up in their wake. And speaking of eyes… moles do have them, but like their ears, they are tiny and often covered in fur or skin, rendering them all but ineffective.
That said, scientists in Aberdeen recently found that although these formidable diggers rely on touch and smell to get about and survive in the darkness of their habitat, their spring-time mating calendar is determined by changes in light conditions. If they are lucky enough to live that long...
"I think I have this thing where everybody has to think I'm the greatest. And if they aren't completely knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don't feel good about myself." - Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Immortalized as a hero of the underground by Roald Dahl, the fox - as beautifully red as the fragment of leaf that is being pushed along on the tip of the mole's nose - is not always fortunate enough to live beneath three abundant poultry farms, and sometimes has to settle for a mole dinner instead.
Capable of outwitting the biggest of Dahl's mean machines, foxes are impressive diggers. They generally only tunnel to depths of around 1.2 meters and tend to claim burrows that have been abandoned by other creatures. For some that makes them lazy, for others, just plain sly. Perhaps they're both.
Tonight's supper was not hard to catch, and now lies limp between the fox's teeth as he tunnels back to his lair. The leaf meanwhile, is a meter below the ground, and no longer quite as red when it embarked on this subterranean journey.
The mole and the fox having gone their separate yet same ways, the scrap of leaf comes to rest. But just for a moment before it is moved by two naked mole rats foraging for tubers. The only mammals known to have a bee-style queen served by the rest of the colony, these strange looking burrowers are particularly resistant to cancer, and live for up to 31 years, longer than any other rodent.
Known primarily for their song that rises with the summer heat, it is hard to imagine cicadas slumbering in silence on fragmented red leaves meters beneath us.
Yet that is how they spend the vast majority of their lives. After hatching in bark slits, the nymphs, as they are known, drop to the ground and burrow down in search of roots on which they feed for up to 17 years.
When their time comes, and only they know when that is, they dig to the surface and climb onto the nearest tree where they shed their skins to become adults.
And thus the opera begins. The male sings to seduce the female, dramatically dying shortly after consummation, and leaving his newly won mate to lay her eggs in as many as forty trees before succumbing to her own mortality.
It is then only a matter of a few short weeks before her eggs hatch and the nymphs launch themselves to the ground where they dig their way to safety. And thus another 17-year cycle begins.
While burrowing into the depths where they will spend almost the entirety of their lives, the young, unformed cicadas wriggle past the the cold slippery skin of the humble earthworm, immortalized in children's literature by Richard Scarry. Another story perhaps, but the name is apt, because the earthworm - of which there are more than 2,000 species - is nothing if not lowly.
And somehow kind of cosmic. With no lungs or respiratory organs, they breathe through their skin, which also exudes a fluid to facilitate its movement through the earth. As they slither, at depths of up to eight meters, they create burrows, stimulating air circulation and loosening the soil.
This movement, coupled with the role they play in the decomposition of organic matter such as what is left of our piece of red leaf, once led Charles Darwin to refer to them as nature's ploughs. And moles and errant garden spades notwithstanding, they have an average lifespan of between six and eight years.
"Worms are the intestines of the earth." Aristotle
The lowly worm is not to be mistaken for the blind snake, which is similar in slim form and coloring. The sightless serpent, however, has a hard skull that it uses to burrow up to 20 meters below the surface of the earth into which the red leaf, red no more, has almost found its way back to the source of its beginnings.
"All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost." J.R.R. Tolkien
Deeper yet than even the blind snake dare venture, grow the subterranean tentacles that not only gave life to the red leaf, but which play an integral part in the survival of everything it has met on its journey beneath our feet.
Roots, which in extreme cases can grow to depths of over 100 meters, are intricate networks of arteries through which plants absorb nutrients, secreting compounds to aid that process, and ward off harmful microorganisms and the disease they aim to spread.
And given that a single teaspoon of productive soil is believed to contain between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria, plants clearly need a solid constitution.
As for our leaf, it is no longer a plant, nor part thereof, but broken down into minute particles of vegetable matter, it has become part of the ground it once shaded and above which it fluttered in the breeze. Though far beyond the reach of the human eye, its role in the dark labyrinth of life that teems below us, is vital. From there, it will help nurture the growth of other leaves, and as such, all life forms. Including our own.