Where Forest Stories Come From

Welcome to Follow the Forest’s blog!

This will be a repository for “Forest Stories,” a series reflecting the values and efforts of the Follow the Forest Initiative. We strive to protect and connect a corridor of core forests running from New Jersey all the way to Canada. The corridor will allow for the safe passage of wildlife and will help ensure clean air and water for generations to come.

This series will take many shapes: news stories about local land acquisitions, community initiatives, profiles of dedicated conservationists, and more.

I’m your blog writer, Paul Mailhot-Singer. I recently joined the Housatonic Valley Association’s land conservation team as a TerraCorps member, and I couldn’t be happier to be directly involved with the Follow the Forest Initiative. I thought I’d kick off this series with my own forest story.

I’ve always been attracted to forests, except I grew up in New York City, where concrete fills the pockets where roots and mycelia should connect trees. City trees are isolated beings. Grasping in vain for other signs of subterranean life, they are awkward communicators at best, deprived of the education afforded by woods where old growth elders teach the young. Only traces of their existences can be intimated from their bark and the distinct shapes of their crowns.

My father often took me fishing on the Delaware and the Housatonic, where I developed a habit of casting into trees. While he tied clinch knots, I decorated trees with fishing line and watched hooked worms squirm from branches. I spent my summers in rural Vermont where a friend and I once sawed a dead tree for firewood. I still remember the thwump its trunk made when it hit the ground. I liked trees, but with few exceptions, they looked alike. I was never taught to distinguish a red maple from a sugar maple, a ponderosa from an ancient bristlecone pine.

At the age of fifteen, I began attending boarding school in Kent, CT. In the springtime, I’d go trail running after classes. The teacher in charge of supervising us wasn’t one for the woods, so we spent afternoons running free. Again and again, we visited the same tree vine, perfect for swinging. I realized I felt happiest in the woods.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail through Oregon and sections of California. One morning, just south of Lower Rosary Lake in central Oregon, I met a man named Chris, who I found standing beneath a large Douglas fir. With his air of quiet assertion, he declared the fir to be over six hundred years old. Struck by the enormity of tree time, I realized the fir had been a sapling when white men first landed in America. Moss hung from its branches, and insects burrowed into its soft cambium. I could feel the fir’s presence, full of life and death.

At the time, I was reading Sometimes a Great Notion and Practice of the Wild, both incidentally about trees, and it turned out Chris taught both books to his high school ecology students. We hiked together, and at my asking, Chris recited the names and uses of the plants, trees, and fungi we passed. I craved his knowledge. I had been hiking for nearly a month and was only beginning to notice the huckleberry bushes lining the trail. Where I saw a sea of green, he detected differences, a forest textured by its profusion of species. His infectious sense of wonder instilled in me a desire to study trees, to learn their names and histories. The aspiration remained vague yet lingered in my mind.

I returned from my hike and began reading about trees. I read fiction about trees and marveled at the ways literature could give voice to traditionally silent creatures. I received funding from my college to read cosmogonic narratives that place trees at the center of creation. The Norse tree Yggdrasil functions as axis mundi. The mythic ash connects worlds — that of the gods, the giants, the living, and the dead — through its root system.

Reading about trees was similar to getting lost in the woods and becoming entangled in something bigger and older than myself. Around that time, I got frighteningly lost one day while wandering through an Idaho forest. I was volunteering on a farm in exchange for room and board and went on daily walks in the national forest past my cabin. There were no paths, and I played at losing my way. But on this day, I spent hours without cell service, water, or food — and no idea where I was going. Being lost in an Idaho forest is like being stuck in a recursive loop of green. The experience was not completely frantic. At intervals, I emerged onto stunning groves of red cedars. Spiderwebs like tiny cities stretched between their branches. I stopped in awe when I surprised a herd of elk traipsing through the brush. I had let myself get carried away into the world of trees. Reading about trees produced a similar mixture of excitement and uncertainty, thrill and disquiet at the challenges facing our planet.

Mostly, I read non-fiction about trees. I had once conflated the silence of trees with a dearth of communication, but I now learned that trees semaphore warnings through the air to protect each other from predators. Elders send nutrients to the young and ailing via fungal networks underground. Miles of mycorrhizal fungus can be found in a teaspoon of healthy soil. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben refers to this mycorrhizal network as the “Wood Wide Web.” This sylvan equivalent of a social network was discovered by Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Research is now being conducted on the crackling of tree roots. The crackling occurs at a low frequency of 220 hertz and appears to be another method of communication.

Most woodland mysteries remain hidden, but scientists have realized that trees are social beings who know that their health depends on that of the entire forest. Reading about the ways trees extend themselves to other creatures and about their hard-wired capacity for sacrifice felt especially germane in the midst of a pandemic, at a time when human beings struggled to act similarly.

I graduated in May having written my senior thesis about the preservation of sacred forests in Japan and India and with the firm conviction that I wanted to play my own hand in forest protection. Mixed in with my love for trees was my indignation at the wanton destruction of forest ecosystems. When we cut down forests, we lose more life and knowledge than we can know. The Follow the Forest Initiative resonated strongly with me, and I was lured in by the possibility of protecting the forests of my adolescent trail-running days.

The world of forestland acquisition and conservation easements is new to me. In case you’re wondering, a conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a conservation organization or government agency that limits development of the land to preserve its conservation value. Now, when I go trail running after work, I think differently about the land beneath my feet. Previously, I had put little thought into how the land I valued for recreation had been preserved and who maintained it. I never considered the many hoops that conservation organizations must jump through to preserve land in perpetuity.

Northeastern forests are predominately secondary growth. The stands of maple, hemlock, and birch that make up the canopy were born from the ashes of their predecessors. Charcoal, fuel for Connecticut’s iron industry, has left indelible traces on the landscape. While we often think of memory as a human trait, the land we walk on is imbued with the memory of past forms. Memory is inscribed in the bark of trees, in their rings, and the peculiar shapes of their crowns. Memory lives on in absence too, on barren lands where primeval forests used to stand.

Forest fragmentation continues to threaten Follow the Forest’s vision of a connected forest corridor. While there is no single, prescribed approach for how to move forward with the climate crisis, Follow the Forest seeks creative, strategic solutions aimed at preserving invaluable woodland habitats. How our communities respond to the challenges we face will continue to be a measure of our shared humanity and powers of empathy.

Forests are breeding grounds for my favorite stories, and as your blog writer it is my hope that this series will help remind readers to treat our remaining forests as indispensable. The company of trees never fails to breathe meaning into my days. Walking amongst them, I am brought back to the kernel of hope that inhabits each trunk and the stories of those whose actions, like unwavering prayers, carry with them the full weight of the forests they protect.

Stay tuned!

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