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“You can’t see the forest for the trees” is an idiom that can be interpreted in a number of ways.
When you see a forest, do you see the trees, or do you see the complex combination of plant and animal life, each element worthy in its own right and each making a contribution to the life of the forest?
The forest understory, also called undergrowth or underbrush, is not usually visible from a distance, yet is vital to the giants that tower above it and to the life and health of the entire forest.
The understory is plant life that grows between the forest canopy and the forest floor, and it takes on a life of its own, much like a literary story with characters, plot, complication and other elements that make it alive and interesting.
Only a small percentage of sunlight comes through the tree canopy, yet enough comes through to allow shade-tolerant plants that grow in the understory to thrive.
What exactly lives in the understory? Understory plants that most of us are familiar with include young trees, shrubs, vines, some wildflowers, dogwoods, holly, ferns, mosses, lichens, mushrooms and numerous other growing things that need moisture that is present in the understory, thanks to the shade provided by the forest canopy.
When a tree falls or is cut down, more light is able to get to the understory, allowing some plants to thrive in the space that has been opened. Some understory plants might wait for years for their turn to flourish with the opening up of the canopy to allow for more light.
Also, when smaller plants die and decay, they provide nourishment to the trees that had provided a shady, moist environment for their lifespan.
When we speak of the understory, we cannot ignore animal life that cohabitates with plant life. Insects, frogs, snakes, birds, worms, snails, small mammals and probably the most resilient animals known, the micro-animals called water bears that can thrive in moss and really in almost any environment on earth.
Reading about water bears that thrive in moss opens up a brave new universe of the forest understory and forest floor. Water bears are just too fascinating to be true and serve as minor characters that add interest to the understory.
When we think of a literary work, a story that has a plot that thickens, we can think of the forest understory that does the same thing. Trees might be the major characters, but the plants and animals in the understory add interest and complication, fill out the plot and provide it with nourishment, embellishment and detail that satisfy the imagination.
Rarely do I pass by a wooded area along the highway that I do not think of the forest understory that is not visible from a moving car. I want to stop the car, walk into the forest, read the understory, so to speak, and try to following that plot. I want to use my little plant magnifying glass and try to spot some magical detail that I might not have ever seen under the forest canopy.
Yes, there is more to the forest than the trees. From the tallest trees to the most minute plants, the forest is a wonder, an unending story told by the natural world.
The plot in the understory forever thickens; some characters die off, yet the story goes on. Even a forest fire cannot completely resolve the plot. The story will come back, restore itself, create new characters and develop new and more interesting plot elements with time.
The next time we see a forest, let us try not to ignore the universe beneath the canopy; consider the saplings, the mushrooms, the lichens, the vines, the wildflowers, the mosses and those tiny water bears that make the understory plot a little thicker.
The forest understory is truly a good read.
Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charm of home, school and country life. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.