The Beauty of Death and Decay

by Lauren Umek

Those ecologists who study the beautiful things of nature: plants that produce gorgeous flowers or animals that are the regularly subjects of adorable YouTube videos find a receptive audience when presenting a case for conservation of these “charismatic mega-flora and mega-fauna.” When you move from the realm of the cute and cuddly to that of the creepy and crawly critters such as bats, spiders, and snakes, or the microscopic microarthropods, nematodes, fungi, and bacteria, that’s when your audience suddenly loses interest.
In my research, I investigate how restoration activities impact some of the beautiful, charismatic mega-floral communities – the Chicago region’s tallgrass prairie and temperate woodland. These ecosystems are either filled with flowers or are alternatively overrun by dense, brambly invasive shrubs. When I tell stories of plant invasion and restoration of these ecosystems, everyone is all ears. It’s not hard to understand that a sprawling field of flowers and tall grasses is a biologically diverse and a “healthier” ecosystem, than one that looks like you’d lose an eye or gain several scratches if you tried to walk through. My newest dissertation research topic, investigates what happens to these gorgeous prairie plants when they die and fall to the ground.

To me, this process of death, decay and devouring is a beautiful and essential process in which a season’s worth of a plant’s hard work gets reallocated to the cells of creepy, crawly critters as well as tiny molds, fungi and bacteria. Eventually, all of this death and decay results in essential resources for next year’s growth. Although this process is vital to all functioning of life on this planet and exemplifies the law of conservation of mass, it is not, however, sexy or cute or beautiful to the average person. As someone passionate about this process, I can find a lot of beauty in a mold covered leaf, but you may not, until you see these images. In collaboration with the nanotechnology lab at Wheeling High School in Wheeling, IL, I’ve been working with HS students to capture images of fungal growth on decomposing leaf litter using a Scanning Electron Microscope.

In capturing these images, I felt like we were a group of astronauts, exploring some uncharted planet landscape, rather than a grad student and 2 high school students exploring chunks of dead leaves. With this data, we are, in fact, charting unexplored territory; using SEM to quantify and explore a microscopic landscape.

These monochrome images are generated for scientific purposes, but I think can show true beauty in death and decay.

A. gerardii, time 0

Andropogon gerardii, big blue stem at time zero (no decomposition). This image shows cell walls of the grass at 520x magnification

B. australis 1800x (2)

B. australis 1800x – Caption: Baptisia australis, or wild blue indigo at time zero (November 2012) at 1800x magnification.

B. australis 3800x

B. austrais 3800 – Caption: Baptisia australis, or wild blue indigo stems after 6 months of decay at 3800x magnification. Fungal hyphae (stringy parts) and spores (inflated and deflated spheres) visible.

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