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Some of what goes unnoticed: A glimpse underground


Wednesday, June 27, 2018, by Eva Paradiso
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   When you first walk into the Harvard Forest during the prime summer days you might notice the large patch of poison ivy filling the forest floor, the countless tree trunks creating a maze throughout the forest, or the green leaves obscuring the sky. If you listen closely, you will hear the sounds of the forest: birds calling, chipmunks, squirrels, mosquitoes buzzing all too loudly in your ear, or the sound of caterpillar poop falling from the sky. The smell of crisp air filled with an earthy aroma calms the soul. On a hot day an occasional breeze cools the body. The forest tickles the senses endlessly, sometimes causing a sensory overload. It can be challenging to truly notice everything around you. There is so much to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, and much goes unnoticed. The secrets of the forest remain secret, and the human fascination with them continues.

   Forest ecologists aspire to unlock the secrets of the forest - of which there are many. This summer, I am working on unlocking the mystery behind tree roots. Roots are a fundamental yet widely under appreciated aspect of trees. They provide nutrients for trees and stop the trees from simply falling over from exhaustion. Covered in a blanket of leaves and under piles of dirt, roots hide from the public eye and sneak away from scientific study. Roots are one of the greatest mysteries of the forest, and this summer I am diving into the intertwined, underground world of roots.

   Each day I head into the field and get dirty. I wander around until I find a tree that looks friendly (I rarely come across one that isn’t) and then I head toward the dirt with a trowel. I dig into the dirt and push around the soil until I find a thin, fine root attached to the tree. Then I begin the process of removing the root, which always makes me feel like a surgeon. When I am successful, I carry the root to a machine that measures the amount that the root is breathing. Yes, that’s right, roots breathe! It’s hard to imagine that these little guys hidden under the forest floor are able to breathe, but they do, and some breathe a lot, roots are amazing.

   Until now roots have done a great job hiding from the forest ecologists. While these underdogs go by each day unnoticed for now, that is soon to change. As the powerhouse of the tree, roots are about to be exposed to the world. Once they are exposed, humans will never look at trees the same way.

 [Digging for a root sample at the base of a northern red oak tree.]

[Cleaning off a root sample with my mentor Fiona.]

[An example of how a typical root sample might look.]

 

Eva is a rising Junior at Wellesley College studying Environmental Studies

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