Listening to the Woods

Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Article by: Robert "Fitz" Fitzhenry, U.S. Forest Service, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry

I didn’t grow up on a lot of land. Our six acres made more of a base camp. The outbuildings, overgrown yews, and trees around our house drew the neighborhood for hide-and-seek and other games, while the flat acres of lawn saw their share of football, baseball, and soccer matches. We never lost a kid, just a lot of balls for the evening when they flew over the cliff into the dormant gravel pit that scalloped the back half of our property.

We had the cliff sloped out some time early in our years there, though that divide between the yard and the outdoors remained. It was a place I passed physically most days, mentally every day, and always alone on both counts. I didn’t mind; I had plenty to do.

Sometimes I stayed in the gravel pit jumping my dirt bike or shooting my BB gun. More often I walked into the wood line that buffered the brook at the back of our land. I’d go upstream or down, or cross over boulders or a fallen tree into the thousand fragmented acres of forest beyond. I left without map or compass, young, excited, and yet to know “how way leads on to way.”

I unwrapped the gift of growing up wandering and wondering, and that gift obviated any conception of boundaries in nature. Instead, I came to perceive transitions and coexistence in past, present, and future context. I learned the lay of the land around cellar holes and kettle holes. I sought the chapels of warmth under the boughs of hemlocks during the winter snow. The advancing spring brought the moist scent of growth, which dried into summer days that might bring a whiff of smoke to follow toward a campfire that smoldered in the duff after its builders had left.

At that high school point of looking at colleges and careers—and to everyone’s surprise but my own—I told my parents I wanted to be a forester. The response was more incredulous than mean, and it had mostly to do with potential income, which still comes on paved roads, not dirt ones.

My forestry dream gave way to civil engineering as the compromise that might let me be outside now and again. While I was studying engineering and thinking less and less about the woods, passionate and powerful others, thankfully, were doing more and more about them. November of my senior year in college—25 years ago—a new Farm Bill put in Federal programs to protect the things I held dear: trees, woods, water, and closest to home, the families who own the open land that knits the countryside together. 

I can’t help but think those who brought forests to the forefront in 1990 were once kids like me, who left without a map but could draw one if asked, who wandered and wondered, never hindered by boundaries in humankind’s sense but perceiving the landscape on nature’s terms. I can’t help but think it and feel kindred.

R. “Fitz” Fitzhenry is a media and legislative affairs liaison for the U.S. Forest Service, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry program. This article appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Forest Matters Stewardship News.