As we pass through the darkest days of the year, I often marvel at the capacity of living organisms to adapt, both seasonally and over a lifetime. Sites where we held field trips this past autumn are now covered in snow and exposed to freezing temperatures, giving us a false sense that everything outdoors is asleep, dead or dormant. Yet even in this dark, frozen season—with its ecological limitations, stresses and strains—opportunities abound for life in the forest.
On the east side of the Cascades, at elevations above 3,000 feet where most of the year’s precipitation falls as snow, winter affords certain capacities you won’t find in the summer. Growth during those warm months, or during the “growing season,” can actually be limited by a distinct and prolonged lack of rainfall. In the winter months, moisture is far more prevalent, and there is less competition for that invaluable resource as trees and shrubs have greatly shut down transpiration for the winter. This opening creates opportunity for decomposers to do their work while other components of the ecosystem sleep. Beneath that blanket of snow, the forest floor and its fresh deposit of litter—leaves, bark, twigs—is kept warm by the insulating blanket of snow, and kept moist by the slow melting of snow and reduced evaporation rate.
If you are lucky enough to be outside in the woods in the spring, just as the snow is retreating and the forest floor is slowly exposed, you will see white mats of fungal hyphae, or snow mold, carpeting the litter layer. As the litter dries, the fungal mat disappears without a trace within a day or two, hiding the fact that this period of dormancy was actually a period of extreme productivity and rejuvenation for the decomposer community. Nutrients deposited in the litter during the autumn are now available for plants to take up and use. It’s a powerful reminder that there’s no downtime in nature. No hours are wasted, nothing ever truly discarded—and even in the quietest moments, life is reloading and pressing forward.
I believe the same lesson holds for our students. While the holiday break and first days of a new quarter often feel like a period of dormancy and sluggishness, those hours without coursework and lectures are hardly idle or fruitless. In that seeming downtime—the snow cover of holiday festivities and social time—the fresh litter of knowledge from the previous quarter finally has a chance to be fully absorbed and processed and converted to a form that can be accessed and used. We can’t simply digest new information all the time; we depend on those invaluable moments of rest and reflection to recharge.
For some of us, the holiday fungal mat might not disappear without a trace, at least not within a day or two, but the law of the forest still applies: As students find themselves back in the classroom this winter, we expect them to return rejuvenated and ready to take on the next season of growth and learning!
Director, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences
Photo © Utah State Extension