"Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in the woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life." - John Muir
As a tree lover, I am saddened whenever I see a tree die. Well, all except poison sumac, but that's another story. What's comforting is the thought that it's all part of a perfect plan: One tree dies so that other life forms may live.
Now, I'm not talking about the frontiersman of old cutting a tree up for firewood to survive the winter (although that surely qualifies as an example). I mean simpler life forms, such as mosses and lichens, critters and crawlers -- the kind of stuff we overlook while hiking in the woods. Here are some examples.
Dead snags are common in the forest. A tree has died. Its life is over, but not its purpose. No longer a source of shade for tender understory plants or food for foraging animals, the tree assumes new duties. Bugs take up residence and woodpeckers feast on those bugs. Squirrels find lodging in holes and crevices while birds build nests. Some of this activity may happen while the tree is still alive, but it increases dramatically once the tree has died.
Eventually, the tree falls -- wind and gravity will see to that. Then moss starts growing on the outer surface, and all of a sudden, you've got dabs of color in an otherwise bleak landscape. But those dabs of color are alive!
In addition to mosses, fungi such as mushrooms sprout and begin their job of breaking down the protective outer bark. When you see fungi growing on dead trees, you can be pretty sure the wood is "punky" and the decomposition process is well underway.
The decomposition process is also helped along by lichen, a colorful partnership of fungi and algae. Ants, termites, and a multitude of other bugs also play a part. A dead tree, it seems, is a friend to many organisms.
Eventually, the tree reverts to a fine wood dust. This process may take decades for a rot-resistant species such as cedar, or it could take just a few years for a soft wood such as poplar. But sooner or later, what's left of the tree will revert to the soil and provide nutrients and minerals to the next generation of plants and trees. The cycle of life is complete. It's perfect in every way.
So the next time you face gnawing questions about life, head to the woods and put on your observation cap. Notice nature's perfection and know in your heart that it's all good.