My friend Shelia Thead saw beauty in a ragged ole leaf on a recent rainy day. As she noted, leaves and more leaves were falling along with the rain, but only this one stuck to her car that morning. She saw beauty in a dreary scene. I see a story worth sharing.
Leaves are the factories that generate the sugars that form the base of most food chains in our world. From there, an assortment of organisms interacts to transform these compounds into the diversity of life we see before us, at least the ones that are large enough to notice.
A simple grade-school food chain might include a caterpillar (herbivore) that eats the leaf (primary producer), to a bird that eats the grasshopper (carnivore), to perhaps a larger bird that eats the first (2nd carnivore). And yet, there are so many more organisms that trace their lives back to the tissues in any leaf. The relationships are more accurately depicted as a web of life.
So, this ragged leaf helps tell a story about what happened to the tissues once held there. We may not know the exact actors, but we know enough to suggest a plot that has as many twists and turns as any mystery novel might.
At one time, I could recite the exact chemical reactions that take place in the chlorophyll of leaves, where sunlight excites compounds that generate the energy needed to transform carbon dioxide from the air, with water and nutrients, to create sugars that fuel a plants growth. Suffice it to say that after 40 plus years, the concept remains, if not the details.
Apart from building more leaf tissue, these compounds fuel the growth of other parts of the plant (stems and roots), its flowers, seeds, and fruit, all of which are foods for other creatures, with their own stories to tell. Plants are primary producers that feed the many. But this story is about a leaf that seems to have fed small immature insects – herbivores, that chewed through the softer tissues, leaving the thicker parts that defined the leaf’s shape.
But the story did not stop there. These small insects are food for larger carnivores and parasites that feed upon or infect them. Among them are larger creatures, like birds, lizards, and other larger insects, but the list of possible consumers also includes innumerable species of small predatory and parasitic wasps, many of which we know little about.
For each of these, there are any number of additional predators and parasites that add to the web of life that began with the leaf. The straight-line example of a food chain gives way to a complex web of interactions, with links to multiple levels of the drama unfolding from the leaf. A bird might eat a caterpillar and then a wasp that just laid its eggs on another caterpillar. The leaf had a role in building both caterpillar and wasp, and now the bird.
But the story does not end with the leaf lying on Shelia’s car. It and its kin fell to the ground where another web of life will use what remains – an equally diverse cast of characters, each with a bit of “leaf” in them. The nutrients that remain will feed the next generation of leaves.
So that is the story of a ragged ole leaf.
Hope to see you in our great outdoors!
Photo courtesy of Shelia Alawine Thead