Everyone Needs a Walk in the Woods

Everyone needs a walk in the woods.

-Sury

After spending a beautiful fall Saturday at the Harvard Forest, I’ve realized just how right my  friend was when she uttered those words as simply as one might utter the fairytale ending of a familiar bedtime story. When I think about them now, I realize that it was not these fairytale endings in themselves that seemed so “true” and irrefutable to me at the time, but rather the simple fact that once they were told, the book would be closed, and they would give me the ability to usher in sleep until the morning arrived again. And that’s kind of the way I feel about taking a walk in the woods. The walk itself was simple and true like my well-worn fairytale endings, but what I loved most was the way in which it bookended my week, and let me usher in the rest I needed before Monday would roll around once more.

Let’s take a walk.

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The day started bright and early as our motley crew gulped down coffee and donuts and settled into the 1.5 hour car ride to the forest, a 3,500 acre tract of land complete with a museum, plenty of ongoing research projects, and beautiful fall foliage that littered the ground we would soon be trekking across.

We had also been asked to pack a lunch. So, naturally, several of the boys had ordered their favorite dish from Cheesecake Factory and decided to bring it along. As we stood in the welcome center at 10:15am, one began unwrapping his package and subsequently looked around for a microwave. “Should I microwave it in this?” he asked loudly, gesturing to a 100% plastic container. No one seemed to notice, since many were still clutching coffee and talking about the day ahead. I must have been silently shaking my head, because the boy who said it suddenly found my gaze and said, “Oh, no? Ok, better not.” I could only smile to myself. Ah well, boys will be boys. The pasta dish would have to be consumed at a later hour (perhaps after breakfast).

Besides the food we had packed, we were all well bundled in coats and sweaters in case the weather turned chilly and there were several bird identification guides littered among the group. Our biology class had come to spend a day observing the ongoing projects in conservation, environmental change, and land use in this historic forest. All I could think from the outset was how happy I was to be a part of that homey-log cabin feel that I associated with summer vacations in the mountains and the impending walk that we would be taking through these trees.

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If I had to sum it up, I’d say just how much a change of scenery means to me. And loving whatever environment you’re in, while you’re right there in the middle of it. There is only so much we can control in our lives, and aside from the people we surround ourselves with, I am a firm believer in using your feet to move to the places that will inspire you most, or at least teach you something.

I’m reading a book called The Diversity of Life for this same class, and it’s taught me quite a bit about this wide world I’ve been occupying for the last 20 years.  In the latest chapter, I learned that we have classified about 1.4 million species on Earth, but this still only constitutes about 1/10 of all life. And even in using rigorous scientific methods, we base these classifications on a surprising number of assumptions such that nothing can be truly “empirical” as we might have imagined scientific inquiry to be.

The Harvard Forest has been a long-term ecological research site since 1988 and the museum at its welcome center features a series of beautiful dioramas which depict the evolution of the forest over time from cleared land to farmland to repopulation by plant and animal species. Throughout the course of the day, I learned plenty of tidbits about the way the landscape had changed and would continue to do so.

For example, I learned that pine trees are usually the first to repopulate an abandoned field. I learned that bears have a remarkable physiology and that squirrels bite sugar maple trees in order to release the sap that oozes out in early spring. I learned that most of the lightning that occurs in our world is actually “ground up” and not the kind we see flickering above us in the sky. And my favorite–I learned that American Chestnut trees are known as “Peter Pan” trees because they never do grow up.

As we walked through those woods, I learned quite a bit about the environment that surrounded me, and I like to think it gave me a newfound appreciation for what it means to take a walk in the woods in the first place. Needless to say, I’d have to say that I agree with Sury: trekking through the woods really is something that we could all use every once in a while. It’s not like standing at the edge of an ocean and having that visceral connection to the sand beneath your feet as the realization that the world is incredibly, hopelessly vast washes over you–no, this is more like immersing yourself in the vastness of the world, and despite it all, feeling powerful enough to claim your steps within it.

When we got back to the welcome center, it was time for a quick lunch before we headed home. And I’ll lay your fears to rest here before signing off–the boys finally did figure out a way to heat up their pasta.

I’d say it was a successful day.

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