Down in the Duff at Jordan Lake

by Stephanie Panlasigui.

Walking through the redwood forest, trailed by fifteen or so fifth graders, I found the perfect spot. It was time for a duff shower. We all bent down to scoop up some duff, and bravely held it above our heads waiting for a count of one, two, three! Only then would we wiggle our fingers to sprinkle the twigs, dirt, leaves and all over ourselves, giggling and laughing at the silly game.

I recalled this memory of outdoor education as I was hiking this weekend, but before I go on, you may be wondering, what is duff? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the partly decayed organic matter on the forest floor.” What this definition is missing is that duff is delightful. Duff encourages close inspection of its finer details, inquisition and detective work. Duff contains clues as to what once was, what occurred recently, and what brings change to the forest. And of course, duff gives kids the chance to get a little dirty and have a little fun engaging with nature.

It had been quite some time since I hiked with these thoughts in mind. On Sunday a friend and I meandered through the forest at Jordan Lake. After a couple paddling trips, this was my first time hiking there on the New Hope Overlook Trail. It does indeed provide several opportunities to look over the water and watch boats go by, but largely, I found myself preoccupied with — you guessed it — the duff.

As she works in outdoor education and I formerly did, my friend and I spent hours on this trail alternating between walking slowly to inspect curious items and walking briskly to make up some time. All the while, it seemed our questions were endless. She found a seed starting to germinate, and wondered which tree it was from, and why it would germinate in fall instead of spring. I found a leggy critter and luckily, my friend taught me that they are harvestmen, relatives of spiders.

Perched on a mushroom, this spindly-legged critter is called a harvestman, and is in fact not a spider, although related.
Perched on a mushroom, this spindly-legged critter is called a harvestman.

Later we stopped by a huge beech tree and noticed a sizable insect on the trunk just above the duff. We wondered what type of food it ate considering its unusual mouthparts. A few feet away, a soft, flexible fungus resembled the corals that live in the ocean.

Left: A mystery insect on an American Beech tree. Right: A fungus reminiscent of corals in the ocean.
Left: A mystery insect on an American Beech tree. Right: A fungus reminiscent of corals in the ocean.

All things considered, the duff indeed told us a tale of the goings-on in the forest ecosystem. The leaves once made a canopy of green, and only just changed colors and fell to the ground. The moisture lingered from Saturday’s rain. Fungi decompose, converting dead organic matter into useful nutrients, and new trees emerge from their seeds and take root.

Sometimes I enjoy hiking faster with the goal of reaching a peak, but it’s also good to remember to take things slower sometimes, and allow myself to really immerse and become aware of the smaller details in the forest around me. Thanks to our discoveries in the duff, I know this is a hike I will remember vividly for a very long time.

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