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  • Standing water on all trails. The view of buttercups from the North Bridge is beautiful.

Looking Ahead: Decomposition Week

With all of the superstitions and mysteries floating about this time of year, Crossroads decided to demystify the mysterious and celebrate a phenomenon that, through the ages, has been associated with death and decay. It’s probably a rotten idea, but this is Decomposition Week at Crossroads. 

Already we have learned about scavengers from our friends at the Open Door Bird Sanctuary. Thursday, we will collaborate with Wild Ones and Master Gardeners for our Second Annual Compost Potluck. Friday, representatives from the Door County Mushroom Club will be at the Collins Learning Center during the First Friday Campfire, and our Saturday Science Program will focus on decomposers during an activity we call, “Life in a Dead Log.”

The ABC’s of Decomposition

Smokey polypore growing at Crossroads this spring.

“Rotten,” “decayed,” and “decomposed” are all words with negative connotations, yet without decomposers, we would not have life as we know it.

Consider a forest, or any other habitat, for that matter. What would it be like if everything – dead trees, fallen leaves, dead animals, dead birds – just piled up? Not a pretty picture, but that’s only a part of it.

We all have been taught that green plants, through the remarkable process of photosynthesis, 

capture the energy of our Sun and, using water and carbon dioxide, manufacture food. This is true, but a bit oversimplified. 

To grow and thrive, plants also need minerals and nutrients, at least 17 of them and probably more. The major ones are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. With a few odd exceptions, land plants absorb these minerals from the soil.

Let’s break this down using a forest as an example. If, over the years, trees absorbed all of the minerals, the forest soil would be so depleted that nothing would thrive, and eventually nothing would grow at all.

But decomposition is the original recycling system. When a tree or any part of a tree dies, decomposers start breaking down the wood or leaves and replenishing the soil with minerals. When I say “soil,” I don’t mean “dirt,” but rather, a diverse, dynamic soil ecosystem made up of countless fungi, bacteria, insects, spiders and microscopic soil flora and fauna.

Fungus has a bad reputation (and admittedly some fungi are harmful), but scientists believe that 80 to 90-percent of land plants benefit from their relationship with fungus. These living organisms (they aren’t plants; they aren’t animals, either) feed on decaying material or else absorb carbohydrates directly from the roots of living plants. In exchange, the fungi and other soil microorganisms improve the soil porosity, water retention, and nutrient availability. 

Come Learn More

The Wild Ones and Master Gardeners will join together for a “Finger Food” Compost Potluck at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 2. Each participant should bring a plate of hors d’oeuvres or bite-sized desserts. Following the meal, participants will scrape their plates, separating “compost-appropriate food” from the scraps best left out of a compost pile. At 6:45 p.m., we will have a short presentation on the importance of keeping food waste out of landfills. Thanks to our friends from the Climate Change Coalition, we will have Door Community Compost Initiative “buckets” available for purchase and provide information on community drop-off sites. 

On the November 3, from 5:30-7:00 p.m., the traditional Crossroads First Friday Campfire will include a special Decomposition Week bonus. Members of the Door County Mushroom Club will set up exhibits inside the Collins Learning Center and be on hand to answer questions about fungi. And – last chance! – costumes are appropriate for the luminary-lit hike and campfire.

Decomposition occurs quickly in a compost pile, but it takes a very long time in a log, and the first stage is boring. Boring means making holes. Woodpeckers, ants, beetles, lawn mowers and string trimmers, to name a few, create openings in the bark of living or dead trees. Those openings allow moisture to get into the wood and fungal spores quickly follow. Through the years, a succession of fungus species release enzymes that dissolve cellulose and lignin in the wood. 

In our Saturday Science Program on November 4, families will dissect a dead log, looking for signs of life – holes, tunnels, egg galleries, fungus, and maybe even hibernating amphibians that are the first step in returning the minerals of the tree to the forest soil. Weather permitting, understanding and respecting that logs are wildlife homes, participants will carefully dissect a rotting log out in the preserve. If the weather is uncooperative this program will move into the lower level of the Collins Learning Center. 

Bird Club – a gathering of people who love birds – meets the first Tuesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the Collins Learning Center. Whether you’re a life-long birder or newly interested, we invite you to come learn. This month, the main topic will be Winter Finches, and, of course, any rarities we’ve seen. 

As always, our trails are open all day every day, free of charge. Check the Crossroads website calendar for upcoming events and details.


Upcoming Activities

Wednesday, November 1

7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. An Informational Session on Lead and Arsenic Soil Remediation.

While it may look a little scary, a live Turkey vulture will be the featured guest at this Halloween program. Learn from representatives of Open Door Bird Sanctuary about this superb scavenger and other beneficial creatures. Feel free to come in costume. Free and open the public. Collins Learning Center, Crossroads at Big Creek, 2041 Michigan Street, Sturgeon Bay.


Thursday, November 2

6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Wild Ones Compost Dinner & Program

The Wild Ones and Master Gardeners will join together for a “Finger-Food Potluck.” Each participant should bring a plate of hors d’oeuvres or bite-sized desserts. Following the meal, participants will scrape their plates, separating “compost-appropriate food” from the scraps best left out of a compost pile. At 6:45 p.m., we will have a short presentation on the importance of keeping food waste out of landfills. Thanks to our friends from the Climate Change Coalition, we will have Door Community Compost Initiative “buckets” available for purchase and provide information on community drop-off sites. Free and open to the public. You need not participate in the potluck to attend the presentation. Collins Learning Center, Crossroads at Big Creek, 2041 Michigan Street, Sturgeon Bay. 


Friday, November 3

5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. First Fridays Campfire & Mushroom Exhibit

The traditional Crossroads First Friday Campfire will include a special Decomposition Week bonus. Members of the Door County Mushroom Club will set up exhibits inside the Collins Learning Center and be on hand to answer questions about fungi. And – last chance! –  costumes are appropriate for the luminary lit hike and campfire. Meet at the Collins Learning Center, Crossroads at Big Creek, 2041 Michigan Street, Sturgeon Bay. 


Saturday, November 4

10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Science Saturdays: Life in a Dead Log

Families will dissect a dead log, looking for signs of life—holes, tunnels, egg galleries, fungus, and maybe even hibernating amphibians that are the first step in returning the minerals of the tree to the forest soil. Weather permitting, understanding and respecting that logs are wildlife homes, participants will carefully dissect a rotting log out in the preserve. The program will move into the lower level of the Collins Learning Center if necessary. Each child will be given a free “log probe” to take home. Free and open to the public. Collins Learning Center, 2041 Michigan Street, Sturgeon Bay.


Tuesday, November 7

6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Crossroads Bird Club: Winter Finches

Bird Club is a gathering of people who love birds. Whether you’re a life-long birder or newly interested, we invite you to come learn. This month, the main topic will be Winter Finches, and, of course, any rarities we’ve seen. Free and open to the public. Meet in the Collins Learning Center, 2041 Michigan Street, Sturgeon Bay.

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