The Microcosm Beneath our Feet

It happens to all of us. There’s a piece of coursework, or maybe even several, that you REALLY do not want to do. You keep putting it off – “ah I’ve got two weeks to do it, that’s ages!” or “meh, I’ll do it the weekend”. Then comes Saturday afternoon, you’re exhausted from the week, you might even be in possession of a raging hangover, and here you are, faced with one of the most uninspiring pieces of work imaginable. Of course, I am writing from experience here. I had more than four weeks to write a scientific report on the impacts of an invasive plant species on the surrounding native ecosystem, yet I left it to less than 48hrs before the deadline to begin the report.

Plants have never really been the most exhilarating entity to me. As someone who is more captivated by the fauna of the rolling waves of the ocean than the seemingly motionless lives of terrestrial flora, you can see why it took me so long to begin this project. Not only was this report focussed on plants, it was also centred around soil sample results *yawn*.  Every time I began researching for this ostensibly mundane report, I found myself daydreaming about the plethora of other things I’d rather be writing about that were taught within this module – LEC241, if you were wondering.

Eventually, so much time had passed that I really did not have any other alternative but to begin writing the report. Rather perplexed, I began typing. By this time, it was around 5pm on Saturday night. Despite time slipping through my fingers, I had still not really got my teeth into the topic – what was there to get my teeth into? Soil and plants are boring. I had pretty much convinced myself of that. Browsing through the internet for some slither of motivation, I fell upon a relatively interesting paper on the interactions between aboveground and belowground communities. Hang on, what was this?

Before I knew it, another four hours had passed. This time something had changed though – I was actually beginning to become intrigued by an entity as commonplace as soil. Looking back at it now, I am genuinely astonished at how quickly my opinion changed once I’d been bothered to fully consider the subject. Soil, annoyingly, is actually pretty damn cool. Interactions that take place within soil ecosystems, from mutualistic fungi to the degradation of leaf litter by detritivores, are highly complex and there is so much more than meets the eye.

By 1am on Sunday morning I massively regretted leaving this report until the last minute. There was so much more I had left to discover. My interest in this report, and this module in general, had spiked and now I could not read enough about plants and soil ecosystem interactions. I don’t know what came over me. I don’t know whether it was the pressure of completing the assignment on time, the new interest in soil biota or the amount of caffeine I was on at this point. Either way, analysing the impacts of Rhododendron on native ecosystems became one of my favourite reports to write so far this year. I only wish I’d started looking into it earlier.

A topic which you find mundane and useless, might eventually become your favourite topic. Soil and plants have not in any way given me a new lease of life, and I’m not about to give up my aspiration of becoming a marine biologist to become a botanist instead. But, I have been given a new appreciation of life underneath our feet and the role our green friends play in that highly intricate network.

I’d highly recommend taking LEC241 – Populations to Ecosystems if you can and of course, thanks to Prof. Nick Graham for helping me to acknowledge the power of plants and soil.

By Hannah Rudd, Second Year Biological Sciences BSc