7-12, Unit Four, Activity 3: "The Secret of Life"

A first-hand examination of the recycling of dead trees back into live trees, and a writing exercise on the role death plays in natural systems. This activity lends itself well to team-teaching with a biology and language arts teacher.

Grades: 7 – 12
Time: 2 – 3 hours
Subjects: Life science, language arts

Teacher Background:
A good review and links to more information about decomposition, nutrient recycling, and old growth forests can be found in the K-3 Glacier Teacher's Guide, Unit 3 as well as in the 4-6 Teacher's Guide, Unit 6.


  • 10 to 12-inch funnels (one per two students)
  • Incandescent table lamps (gooseneck best, one per two students)
  • Mason jars or beakers or Erlenmeyer flasks
  • Copies of "Narrative" and writings (see links in Procedure #5) about death, 1 / student

1. Assign students to bring in a piece of decaying log (of their choice) from any forest near their home.

2. Have them put the piece in a plastic grocery bag and tie it so the creatures inside won’t escape.

3. In the classroom, place the decaying wood in a funnel over a jar or flask.

4. Place the lamp over the funnel close to the wood (make sure there is no fire hazard). The heat of the light bulb will drive the insects and mites down into the jar. While the lamp does its work for about an hour, move to #5.

5. Have students read the prose and poetry readings about death: Song of the Taste by Gary Snyder; Geocentric by Pattiann Rogers, and The Secret of Life by Denny Olson.

6. Then have them answer the following questions:

  • What is the word which best describes your feelings about your piece of wood?
  • List the examples of death you see in your object.
  • Do you see any life in the dead parts you listed?
  • List the things you had for breakfast today (or dinner last night).
  • Were any of them ever alive?
  • How would you feel if you came across a dead insect in the woods? A dead fish? A dead fox? A dead dog? A dead human?
  • How do you explain the differences in your feelings?
  • Other than rocks, can you think of anything in nature which does not have both life and death in it?
  • Write a short epitaph for a tombstone which reflects where (physically, not spiritually) the person came from and where they are going?
  • Every atom in your body completely recycles itself every seven years. Is there life and death in you? How?

7. Have students examine their jars and compare their inhabitants. Discuss why it is important for each student to replace the piece of wood and the animals back where they originally found them.

Variations and Extensions:
Have students do an art project which reflects their knowledge and feelings about death both before and after this activity.

1. Have students design and play a web game with yarn which represents the relationships in the old growth forest. See the Subalpine Web Activity for an example of how to do this.

2. There is a self-contained rubric of understanding in the questions and artwork above.

Last updated: November 8, 2017

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