Our Frozen Invisible Neighbors Will Thrive Again

NRCS Soil Health. Creative Commons

This month we arrive at winter’s anticipated transition to spring. When winter started, we voyaged indoors. Yet, even in the coldest of months, life continues in the most inconspicuous of places: beneath the cold ground. For most of our existence on earth, we have had it relatively easy, at least compared to our hapless neighbors living in the soil.

Scientists estimate that over one million individual bacteria call a single gram of soil their home, most of which belong to species yet to be discovered. These disregarded neighbors become entirely inactive as the soil freezes, inhibiting all processes necessary of life. When spring arises they carry-on as if nothing ever happened.

It is estimated that there are also 60,000 species of fungi in our soil. These fellows actually perish during the winter, but before they pass, they create spores that are dispersed and will form filamentous networks that allow the nascent individuals to find nutrients and thrive when the soil warms. That is dedicated parenting.

The most interesting winter survival strategy is that of common earthworms. These worms dig to half a foot deep and cover themselves in their own mucus: a process called estivation. Estivation is done by many reptiles, though the mucous sheathing is unique to earthworms. They will emerge when the soil is comfortable enough; some species do not surface until August. Imagine spending four months in the cold-dark covered in your own mucus.

Many of us do not think about these creatures throughout the year. Yet, their variegated methods of averting hardship are brilliance to revel in. We decelerate in the winter and have days where each task seems ad infinitum. However, deep beneath our feet the beauty of life continues by diligent organisms diverting harsh conditions for our benefit.

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MICHAEL HOFFMAN Michael drinks 4 quarts of coffee before 7 a.m., runs 60-100 miles per week, and spends the rest of his time wishing he did neither of those.

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