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Rot has gouged out one of the giant bear’s eyes and scraped the scales off the alligator. The natural breakdown of the whimsical creatures carved by Wade Geddings in fallen tree trunks along the Cayce Riverwalk is both sad and instructional.

Geddings says the work was designed to be ephemeral, though he has been surprised at how quickly the extreme environment along the Congaree River has begun to reclaim the logs.

Four years ago, The Cayce Beautification Foundation commissioned Geddings to carve the critters out of some of the larger detritus left along the greenway by the 2015 floods. Geddings skillfully used a chainsaw and blowtorch to make logs and stumps come to life as bobcats, squirrels, owls and turtles. They immediately were huge hits with folks who walk on the section of the riverwalk between the Knox Abbott Drive/Blossom Street bridge and the railroad trestles.

Geddings recalls heading out to check on the critters a few weeks after creating them and discovering children playing on the alligator already had worn off some of the green paint. But through the years, most of the damage was simply natural wood decomposition, a process critical to the cycle that maintains forest. It’s  wonderful that those sculptures are making people  notice the process. Parents can use the decaying sculptures as a science lesson.

Decomposition occurs as the wood’s cellulose and lignin are converted to carbon dioxide and water, with the remaining nutrients being released into surrounding soil. The heroes in the process are fungi, bacteria and slime mold who typically get things started, feeding on the cellulose and softening the wood. Beetles, snails, millipedes and earthworms move in later, and eventually larger creatures feed on them.

Logs from various tree species decompose at different rates, which helps explain why some of Geddings’ sculptures are doing better than others. But the type of tree is just one factor. Another important determinant of decomposition speed is moisture. Most of the organisms that hasten decomposition thrive in moist environments — like a river flood plain, especially a river flood plain that has flooded more often than normal the past few years. In fact, some of the logs with Geddings’ sculptures on them floated during extreme floods, prompting Cayce park staff to chain them to stakes so they aren’t lost during high water.

It will be interesting to see which of the sculptures outlast the others. The owls, baby bears and turtles seem to be doing well. Another fun experiment might be to compare the sculptures along the riverwalk with two newer ones Geddings created in stumps on higher ground in Guignard Park.

For those who haven’t seen Geddings’ creations along the riverwalk, the best launching spot for a walk is the parking lot at the river end of Naples Avenue. The giant bear hangs out on the edge of the parking lot, and several other critters can be spotted before the spur trail gets to the river. Some are harder to find than they used to be as floods and wind frequently move either the host logs or other woody debris. To see them all, you’ll have to walk the sections north and south. It’s a beautiful section to walk made even more interesting by the sculptures.