The Forest as Human Sanctuary
By Paul Spitzer
I cannot fully explain what happens to me in the forest. My forest time is a separate reality, when all manner of mundane considerations fall away. My sight, smell, hearing, and balance are filled in this three-dimensional place “not made by hand.” The Japanese call this experience “Forest Immersion,” and I like that metaphor. It gets at the liberation of body, mind, and senses gained by entering this profoundly different medium. I leave the quotidian behind. Please consider how simple forest entry and perception can be: All you need is light hiking boots with ankle support, and perhaps a pair of binoculars for forest birds. But you must slow down, and be open to the experience. Over the years and the revolving seasons, one refines forest skills. Diverse forests remain exotic, but become places where you recognize familiar plants and animals, and understand how to fit; where you are happy to be a temporary “forest creature.”
Wendell Berry writes of “the brotherhood of eye and leaf.” My eyes range high and low, from canopy to understory. In a tall old forest, I often need my binoculars to identify canopy leaves. My ears are free of manmade noise—they receive full birdsong in spring, and quieter notes the rest of the year. My New England virtuoso forest songbirds are the Hermit Thrush (north) and Wood Thrush (south). Each sings vespers—an early evening walk will find them in full throat. In contrast, tuneless but charming Pileated Woodpeckers are noisy, triumphant survivors of an era when much of the forest was cut. They often sound off along my path, and I wonder if they are making territorial challenges as I enter their domain. Vertical oblong wood-workings and piles of soft extracted wood are mute statements of their presence.
Many birds rely on forest habitats, and animate them. But frankly—the trees are more accessible. Year-round, trees aren’t going anywhere; and learning each species’ four-season changes is a gratifying aspect of the forest. The fragrance of the forest displays tremendous seasonal variation, spring through autumn; and there is the waft of conifers vs. deciduous trees. In warm weather, deep forest shade provides cool sanctuary. Evapotranspiration from leaves uses ambient heat energy, so the forest also offers a natural form of air conditioning. The autumn season is beyond compare, with a profusion of color illuminated by shafts of “cathedral light,” an array of fruits and nuts for wildlife, and the bouquet of decaying leaves as you shuffle across the forest floor. Autumn also sees the beginning of the hunting season. This deserves special ecological attention, because too many deer damage forest plants and prevent normal seedling and sapling survival. Intensive hunting is often desirable, so the hunter and the hiker should be friends, not adversaries. Equitable rules for forest use in time and space are essential, to give everyone a fair chance. All users are part of the forest protection constituency.
These diverse recreational uses lead us to trail creation and maintenance. It is an art, and yields a keen understanding of forest processes, such as the constant annual fall of leaf and branch litter. Maybe I should say a “knee understanding,” because clearing fallen material can be a workout for aging knees. Trail markers should be temporary for at least one annual round of four seasons. It is good to begin in winter, when lines of sight are greatest. Such lines of sight, and the resulting sense of space, are desirable at all seasons. Walk on level, well-drained ground whenever possible. Following deer trails is often a good idea. Stay in open shade, which discourages growth of vegetation. Clip a little vegetation when necessary, but make no massive “highway projects”—always you want to join up and be unobtrusive. Going around obstacles is usually much more interesting—and that’s what the deer do.
A word here about biophobia, which keeps too many naïve and deserving people out of the forest. Yes, there can be ticks, which potentially carry serious diseases. But I grew up as a kid rambling the forests of Lyme, and I have never had Lyme arthritis. I have very reactive skin, and when a tick inserts its proboscis I know it. Also, I shower at day’s end, and sometimes I leave my forest clothing in the garage. Another key break: Disease transmission doesn’t occur until the tick has been attached for 36 hours. But tiny seed ticks do require thorough body consciousness, and maybe a shaving mirror for blind spots. And if a site has many ticks, I don’t go there.
Tree species exhibit “personas” that are diverse and profound. The white bloom of Shadblow “treelets” is an event of early spring. These understory flowers stand out against the still-leafless forest, and are said to mark the spawning herrings’ return. Tulip Trees are towering columns in our forest, producing their eponymous flowers in June. Latitudinal variation in these species can be enormous. In the southern Appalachians, Shadblow grows to a preposterous (for us) 60' high, and massive tulip trees commonly grow to 5'+ diameter and well over 100' high. To really appreciate Eastern forest ecology, one must travel both south and north. Over eons, with at least four glacial advances in the last million-or-so years, forest trees were forced to ever-so-slowly do exactly that. So our latter-day New England native species are those that had the mobility to make multiple returns over geological time. They encountered stone-studded postglacial soils, and a relatively short growing season. But this ecology also defied human uses over recent centuries, driving many agriculturists to warmer or more fertile climes; so much of New England today, if left alone, will soon be cloaked in forest.
In winter, I enter the snowbound, far-northern forest on cross-country skis, enjoying all-body exercise and gliding mobility. I alternate this aerobic action with long appreciative pauses in a transformed landscape, while sunlight bounces off the snowpack. Warm-blooded animal life other than myself can make surprise appearances, even in deep winter. Skiing on a full moon, zero-degree Fahrenheit midnight in northern Vermont (not for amateurs—and done on a safe trail close to my warm cabin), I encountered a tiny shrew on the snow surface. His proper habitat was a foot below, preying on voles in their subnivean tunnels. After holding him in my lined glove for ID, I lost track of him. Twenty minutes later, tiny feet rounded the back of my neck from the collar of my warm down jacket: I had a hitchhiker. Naturalist Bernd Heinrich writes of snow-diving Ruffed Grouse, which tunnel into soft snow at night to avoid predators and (I think) stay warm!
Forest reserves need constituencies, stakeholders who appreciate them and know how to use them; much as a church needs a congregation. That need for human connections is vital. Otherwise there may be utilitarian pressures for “cropping,” especially in regions dominated by agriculture or development, where remnant “orphan” forests are especially precious, but are already vanishing from human consciousness. A mature or (even better) an old growth forest takes time to create itself: One human lifetime; or two for old growth. It is a whole community of native organisms, a treasure chest of biodiversity evolved over eons, which we cannot duplicate with a well-intentioned tree-planting project. So we must conserve and appreciate what we have, as legacy “natural, native” forests. When you travel south, look carefully for big commercial pine plantations behind a thin roadside layer of native trees, and realize how much has been converted to tree farm monocultures.
Paul Spitzer, PhD, lived in the Connecticut River valley during his formative years as a naturalist and ecologist. He began his Osprey–DDT research as a student at Wesleyan University. He continued his doctoral research on northeastern osprey population biology at Cornell. He has accomplished conservation biology projects worldwide. He is currently finishing a book about loons.