Seeing the Forest, for the Trees

Phil and I travel Hwy 13 on our way toward Herbster, WI, (our cabin’s address) a scenic byway that cuts along forest and farms, gives teasing views of Lake Superior.  There are a few openings that you see water before Port Wing, that give clues to the season. After a heavy summer rain, the lake is chocolate milk. During Spring runoff, the color of tea. I have seen all shades from palest blue to dark violet.  Today the lake is aquamarine, sky is clear and the view of our bay from the highest point is layered by terra cotta sandstone and red clay cliffs. Flames of dark evergreen, a hint of gray aspen smudged with the lightest green birch give us a panorama of the forest in early spring.

It is our tree planting weekend, as we do in early May. New varieties–Tamarack and Hemlock plus a few dozen Red Pine will be added to our forest community. We walk among the familiar trees and talk over where the new species would do best. It is our last chance to get around before the forest floor crowds the tiny trees with tall grass and ferns. The deer ticks are out, so we pull socks over pant legs, and fill two buckets of water to keep the seedlings cool and wet.  We gear up with gloves, hats, shovels, and pruner.

Pepin lopes along, following us, unearthing deer bones and chewing on sticks as we work. I am surprised how physically challenging it is for me to dig holes, haul water and carry the shovel, while minding the uneven terrain.  And Phil did most of the digging, especially after I left my shovel behind, lost in the grasses.

It feels good to plant a tree that might leave a legacy.

You can see evidence of the young white and red pine sprinkled throughout our property from past years.  Some wave blue flags, to identify them at a distance and some are encircled by wire cages to keep the deer from taking them out in one munch.  Some stand ten feet now, the branches full, others bent down by heavy snows.

Maybe Phil and I should be more intentional about where we plant the seedlings, placing them alongside a larger, older neighbor.  Or in a sunny patch where they won’t compete for light.  So much of what we know about forests is observed—learned from what we see above the ground, from walking among the trees or admired from the car window.  I feel exposed when familiar sections are logged off, or a severe storm has passed, seeing the jagged aftermath.  Once Phil and I witnessed heavy logging equipment in action, a “feller buncher” took out a tree in one action, leaving behind a short stump. It looked like a scene from a science fiction movie, a robotic form ravaging the earth.  

A favorite walk in a boreal forest reduced to lengths of logs.

Through ancestral research, I learned my great, great grandfather worked as a lumberjack when he first came to the US from Belgium. He was part of the immigration wave that brought Europeans to Wisconsin to farm, log or mine. They crossed the Atlantic, passed through the Great Lakes, took the train to settle in Superior and Eau Claire to find work harvesting the abundant resources. The wood from local white pine and sandstone quarried from Lake Superior’s south shore, built Chicago’s brownstones and Saint Paul’s stately homes.

The loss of the virgin forests to the woodcutters’ saw, and the settlement and development that followed, forever decimated the indigenous culture that had thrived here. Native Americans understood forests as a source of life and spirit. They used the variety of plants and trees as medicine, food, homes and transportation, through traditional knowledge and culture. Now we are understanding too late, the richness of this knowledge that can be applied to nurture a more diverse forest ecology. Dr Suzanne Simard’s The Mother Tree Project and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees are two such works that have revealed greater insights into what makes a happy and healthy forest, much of it practiced and understood by Native peoples.

I wonder what what role I play in the life of the forest?

When I drive into Cornucopia, I glance over at the forest mascot I grew up with, Smokey the Bear. I took to heart his message, that burning down the forest was its worst possible fate, and that it was up to me to prevent it. I know now that there are equally harmful ways to adversely impact forests through our collective choices and actions. Our forests have become less diverse and more vulnerable due to my ineptitude and naivety.

Stewardship is just one thing I can offer to our small forest community. Several generations of aspen, birch, cedar and pine have grown here, after the virgin forests were cut down, and the land was cleared for cabins like ours. The species that moved in have withstood multiple cycles of growth and regeneration in spite of us, making a rich and abundant resource for wildlife and people. And during my short tenure here, I have experienced many times the healing and awakening power of the forest–where I sense the Divine, feel the peace that comes from the balsam bowing low from heavy snow, a moment of light spilling over a white pine or caught in the shimmer of aspen. Time here has been an antidote for stress and illness, makes me feel safe and calm.

One more thing, I wanted to share this article that my friend Lory alerted me to Trees Do More Than Fill The Sky by Sarah Baker, from Star Tribune’s Outdoor Section, June 3, 2021. You will find it raises many of the same ideas here.

One thought on “Seeing the Forest, for the Trees

  1. What a lovely reflection that draws on history, ancestry, ecology, and climate change. I heard Simard interviewed on a Fresh Air podcast. Her work is fascinating and changing how scientists have understood the chemistry of trees. I just returned from a long weekend near Lac du Flambeau, where I stayed on a lake whose sinuous shoreline is virtually pristine. It’s humbling to be surrounded by so many trees.


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